How a team of climatologists is helping to save millions from starvation

The Climate Hazards Center provides vital early warnings of droughts in the world’s famine-prone regions. Its director, Dr Chris Funk, explains how climate change is contributing to such catastrophes


Climatologist drought

In the mid-1990s, Chris Funk was working as a data analyst in Chicago, combing through personal information that matched potential credit card customers with targeted advertising. Dissatisfied with his job and seeking a more fulfilling use for his skills, he upped sticks and enrolled at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), where he obtained a doctorate focusing on statistical climatology. 

That decision eventually led to Funk’s participation in an initiative that has put his data-crunching expertise to meaningful effect around the globe. In his 2021 book Drought, Flood, Fire, he details his alarming findings concerning the links between climate change and various types of natural disaster. He also describes the work of UCSB’s Climate Hazards Center (CHC), which he leads, in helping to mitigate their worst effects. 

“If climate change is contributing to droughts that are affecting tens of millions of people, I thought I might be a good person to try to tell that story,” he says. 

Since the CHC was founded in 2003, Funk and his team have been quietly working to turn all the data they’ve gathered into actionable information. Nearly 20 years in, he’s recounting their achievements in protecting vulnerable communities far and wide. 

“It’s a story of fear and hope. There is a lot to be concerned about, but there is also a lot that we can do,” he stresses.

Research in this field often focuses on long-term trends, but climate change already presents a clear and present danger. Increasingly intense heatwaves and droughts are causing crop failures and wildfires, while disrupted patterns of precipitation are leading to flooding in regions ill-prepared to cope with torrential rainfall. 

The CHC’s research serves as a stop-gap, producing reports on potentially dangerous climactic events. It focuses on east Africa, one of the world’s most drought-prone regions. The reports are distributed by the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, a resource created by the US Agency for International Development. That information is in turn used by humanitarian aid organisations to assign resources to the areas in greatest need. If food, water and other vital supplies can be distributed in regions likely to suffer a harvest-ruining drought, say, its worst effects may be alleviated. 

But it wasn’t so long ago that its insights were ignored. In 2010, for instance, the CHC predicted an imminent famine in Somalia, to little avail. By the time that aid agencies managed to channel resources to this deeply impoverished and politically volatile state, more than 250,000 people had already died.

Funk and his team have honed their methods to razor sharpness over the ensuing decade. Now the predictions they make are widely heeded as crucial indicators. They can reliably forecast droughts in east Africa up to eight months in advance, for instance.

Do I think we’re going to cap the temperature increase at 1.5°C? No. With some effort, we could stop it before it reaches 2.5°C

Funk tracks the patterns that indicate upcoming droughts using a sophisticated blend of data from satellites and on-site rainfall monitoring stations – a system known as the Climate Hazards Group Infra-Red Precipitation with Station Data (Chirps). He focuses on two irregular variations in oceanic temperature and wind patterns known as El Niño and La Niña events, as well as several related currents. El Niño refers to the abnormal warming of tropical surface waters in the central and eastern Pacific and La Niña to their abnormal cooling. 

While these patterns historically tended to occur about three times a decade each in alternating order, their frequency has increased since the El Niño of 1997-98. The fluctuations have huge meteorological impacts thousands of miles away from where they happen. La Niñas in particular reduce the level of water vapour in the winds that head towards east Africa, severely reducing the likelihood of rainfall there. 

“In 12 out of the past 24 years there have been La Niñas,” Funk says. “I am very confident that the circulation disruptions they cause are being amplified by climate change.”

By monitoring the various factors that have led to La Niñas in the past, he and his team can detect similar enabling conditions as they develop, lending a good degree of accuracy to their forecasts. In the autumn of 2016, for instance, they accurately forecast an impending drought in Somalia. By the time that crop failures in the country had caused crisis levels of food insecurity for nearly 3 million people in the winter, shipments of food were already on their way. They had almost certainly prevented the famine from causing mass starvation.

The CHC noticed similar conditions brewing in 2020. At risk this time were Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia yet again. 

“We successfully predicted a drought that ran from October to December of that year,” Funk recalls. “We were also able to forecast the March to May drought of 2021. And then, in the summer of 2021, we predicted another one in the last three months of the year.”

He believes that drought is more likely than not to strike east Africa again towards the end of this year, revealing that there’s “a more than 50% chance” that a three-month La Niña will occur. NGOs are already planning to mobilise further aid, but it may not be enough in a region that’s already been strained to breaking point.

Nonetheless, Funk views his continuing work as grounds for optimism. In an age of growing despair about global warming – so much so that the term ‘eco-pessimism’ has been coined to describe it – the CHC’s efforts are part of the solution to some of the most pressing problems caused by climate change. And he is excited about refining its methods further through the increased use of on-site temperature monitoring around the globe. Using the data this gathers, he hopes to better understand vegetation desiccation – a factor that has fuelled catastrophic wildfires in the US and Australia.

When it comes to mankind’s prospects of keeping global warming below catastrophic levels, he is less sanguine. 

“Do I think we’re going to cap the temperature increase at 1.5°C? No. With some effort, we could stop it before it reaches 2.5°C. That’s still a hell of a lot better than 4°C,” he adds.

Funk believes that we’ll have to throw everything we’ve got at the problem even to achieve that modest goal. National governments worldwide must redouble their efforts, he says. “We can come up with a $1tn a year to deal with climate change. That’s only about 1% of global GDP.” 

But the private sector and private citizens will need to chip in as well. In his view, “there is a moral imperative to be more energy efficient, reduce emissions and support political leaders who are going to advocate for smart policies”.

Funk prefers to leave the specifics of those approaches to the subject experts, though. In the meantime, he and his team are focused on the data indicating when and where the next famine is most likely to strike. That, they know, they can do something about.