The major news organizations haven’t picked it up yet, but there’s a massive wildfire outbreak now ongoing over Central and Western Africa. These wildfires are plainly visible in the NASA/MODIS satellite shot — covering about a 1,400 mile swath stretching from the Ivory Coast, through Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon and on across the Central African Republic, the Congo, and Gabon.
(Very large wildfire outbreak in Central Africa in the February 10 LANCE-MODIS satellite shot. For reference, bottom edge of frame covers about 350 miles. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)
Smoke from these fires is extremely widespread — stretching over almost all of Western and Central Africa, blanketing parts of Southern Africa and ghosting on out over the Southern Atlantic Ocean. Together with these massive fires we have what appears to be a rather significant CO2 plume showing up in the Coperinicus monitoring system (see below). It’s a signature reminiscent of the amazing Indonesian wildfires that, during a few weeks of the Fall of 2015, matched the CO2 emission of Germany. The satellite representation of these fires is so strong that it’s difficult to believe that no news of the fires has hit the mainstream media. But, so far, there hasn’t even been a peep.
The intensely burning fires now rage across a region of Africa experiencing both severe heat and drought with temperatures hitting well over 40 C in Nigeria and over 36 C throughout the broader region today. An extreme heatwave occurring in tandem with a new kind of flash drought event that’s becoming more and more common as human fossil fuel emissions keep forcing the world into higher and higher temperatures ranges.
(The Copernicus CO2 monitor shows an intense CO2 plum issuing from very intense wildfires over Central and Western Africa on Wednesday, February 10th. Other CO2 hotspots include China, the Northeast US, Northern South America, Southeast Asia, and a region stretching from Siberia through to the Arctic. It’s worth noting that Northern Hemisphere CO2 levels now range from 400 to 414 parts per million. Image source: CAMS CO2 Monitoring.)
Central Africa is but the most recent region to feel the effects of extreme drought and related risks to food security. For through 2015 and on into early 2016, both drought and hunger grew in scope and intensity across Africa. An impact that is almost certainly related to the combined influences of a near record El Nino and global average temperatures that are now in the range of 1.1 degrees Celsius hotter those seen at the end of the 19th Century.
El Nino + Global Warming’s Impact on African Drought Risk
As a human-forced heating of the globe warms the world’s airs and waters, the rate of evaporation and precipitation intensifies. On the wet end of the spectrum, the added heat and atmospheric moisture provides more available energy for storms. But on the dry end, droughts can appear more rapidly, become more intense and, in many cases, become longer-lasting. Effects can generate entirely new weather patterns — as seen in increasing instances of heat and drought appearing over the US Southwest or the progressively more stormy conditions showing up over the North Atlantic. Or they can intensify an already prevailing pattern.
(Large sections of Africa suffering from severe drought as of February 7th in the Africa Flood and Drought Monitor graphic above. Widespread areas in red show soil moisture levels hitting their lowest possible rating in the monitor over widespread regions during recent days.)
In the case of the latter, it appears that just such an event may be happening now across Africa. During typical strong El Nino years, heat and drought were already at risk of intensifying — particularly for regions of Southern and Eastern Africa. But now, with global temperatures 1.1 C hotter than those seen during the late 19th Century, the drought risk is amplified. Added average atmospheric heat sets base conditions in which water evaporates from the soil more rapidly — so a pattern that would typically result in drought risk becomes far more intense and dangerous.
Over the past year, intense drought has impacted widespread regions across eastern and southern Africa. Sections of South Africa experienced its lowest levels of rainfall since record-keeping began in 1904 even as widespread drought from the Horn of Africa and regions south and westward put millions at risk of a growing hunger crisis.
Hunger Crisis Spreads, Fear of Famine Grows
According to The World Food Program and a February 10 report from VICE News, the widespread and growing drought is taking its toll. Skyrocketing local food prices, mass displacement due to political instability, and failed crops due to the driest conditions in 35 to 111 years are all having an impact. Now, more than 20 million people are at risk of hunger across Africa.
In Zimbabwe, President Mugabe declared a state of emergency as more than a quarter of the 13 million population struggled to access food. Many families were reported to have gone more than a week without a meal amidst heightening concerns over potential food riots. In Somalia, more than 3.7 million people faced acute food insecurity even as 58,000 children were at risk of dying during 2016 due to lack of food. Nearly 10 million people in Sudan were reported at risk of going hungry even as 40,000 were identified as potential immediate casualties due to the growing crisis. In Ethiopia, massive livestock losses due to drought are resulting in the worst food crisis since 1984 — a year that saw an estimated 1 million die due to famine.
(A food emergency — shown in red — emerges in East Africa even as food crises erupt across Central and Southern Africa. Food emergency regions indicated in red on this map are just one level below famine. Image source: Famine Early Warning System.)
Meanwhile, according to the Famine Early Warning System, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Yemen, Zambia, Mozambique and Madagascar all faced potential food crises through March. Risk of hunger is also compounded by a large number of displaced persons throughout Africa with East Africa alone hosting over 5.1 million refugees across South Sudan, Burundi, and Yemen.
Rain patterns are expected to shift eastward, bringing some relief to sections of the Horn of Africa even as drought is predicted to expand into the regions of Central Africa now experiencing intense wildfires.