The potential value of seasonal forecasts in a changing climate in southern Africa

Winsemius HC, Dutra E, Engelbrecht FA, Garderen EAV, Wetterhall F, Pappenberger F, Werner MGF
Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 18, 1525-1538, 2014

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Subsistence farming in southern Africa is vulnerable to extreme weather conditions. The yield of rain-fed agriculture depends largely on rainfall-related factors such as total seasonal rainfall, anomalous onsets and lengths of the rainy season and the frequency of occurrence of dry spells. Livestock, in turn, may be seriously impacted by climatic stress with, for example, exceptionally hot days, affecting condition, reproduction, vulnerability to pests and pathogens and, ultimately, morbidity and mortality. Climate change may affect the frequency and severity of extreme weather conditions, impacting on the success of subsistence farming. A potentially interesting adaptation measure comprises the timely forecasting and warning of such extreme events, combined with mitigation measures that allow farmers to prepare for the event occurring. This paper investigates how the frequency of extreme events may change in the future due to climate change over southern Africa and, in more detail, the Limpopo Basin using a set of climate change projections from several regional climate model downscalings based on an extreme climate scenario. Furthermore, the paper assesses the predictability of these indicators by seasonal meteorological forecasts of the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) seasonal forecasting system. The focus is on the frequency of dry spells as well as the frequency of heat stress conditions expressed in the temperature heat index. In areas where their frequency of occurrence increases in the future and predictability is found, seasonal forecasts will gain importance in the future, as they can more often lead to informed decision-making to implement mitigation measures. The multi-model climate projections suggest that the frequency of dry spells is not likely to increase substantially, whereas there is a clear and coherent signal among the models of an increase in the frequency of heat stress conditions by the end of the century. The skill analysis of the seasonal forecast system demonstrates that there is a potential to adapt to this change by utilizing the weather forecasts, given that both indicators can be skilfully predicted for the December–February season, at least 2 months ahead of the wet season. This is particularly the case for predicting above-normal and below-normal conditions. The frequency of heat stress conditions shows better predictability than the frequency of dry spells. Although results are promising for end users on the ground, forecasts alone are insufficient to ensure appropriate response. Sufficient support for appropriate measures must be in place, and forecasts must be communicated in a context-specific, accessible and understandable format.