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Oxford hosts global collaboration on Africa’s climate conundrum




September 28, 2018


On 13 September an international team of scientists from Kenya, Ghana, Cameroon, South Africa and the United Kingdom travelled to the School of Geography and the Environment (SoGE) in Oxford to discuss an enduring problem: how to improve climate models over Africa.

An international group of scientists gather at the School of Geography and the Environment for the Africa Process Evaluation Group Meeting.


“The climate of Africa represents a particular challenge to climate models,” explains Catherine Senior, Head of Understanding Climate Change at the Met Office. “It is the representation of detailed local processes and feedbacks as well as the remote influence of large-scale modes of climate variability and the delicate interplay between them that present these challenges.”

Historically, climate models have captured the weather systems of the midlatitudes better than those of the tropics, particularly so across Africa, where observations of those systems have been sparse. As a result these climate models have only a modest ability to capture African climate systems, and there is low scientific confidence in important aspects of the projections for Africa’s climate in the next 5-40 years.

The Met Office has recognised this challenge and has made a concerted effort to improve it’s climate model over Africa, made possible by funding from NERC and DFID. Engagement with scientists in universities is a fundamental to inform this model development, and through the Met Office Academic Partnership, scientists at SoGE have developed strong links to the modelling centre.

Collaboration with African scientists plays a crucial part in the latest efforts to tackle this major scientific hurdle. The processes that drive weather and climate are quite specific to each region, and, researchers from SoGE and the Met Office are now working closely with scientists from South Africa, Ghana, Kenya, and Cameroon to turn a local lens on the global climate model.

SoGE’s Professor Richard Washington said “the gathering of like minds between UK universities, 10 African climate scientists and the Met Office is exactly the sort of partnership needed to move climate models forward in the face of the threats of climate in vulnerable communities. We are very grateful to DFID, NERC, the Met Office and the FCFA Mobility Fund for making this all a reality.”

Babatunde Abiodun, an Associate Professor from University of Cape Town, added: “This is a unique opportunity for African and UK climate scientists to strategise together, not only on how to improve the UK Met model, but also on how to make the best use of the model outputs in addressing climate risks and challenges in Africa.”

On Thursday, seventeen scientists delivered talks at the meeting, sharing the latest developments in African climate science with the wider group. Oxford contributions included SoGE’s Neil Hart, who provided an update on his analysis of state-of-the-art simulations over southern Africa.

The meeting also provided an important opportunity for the NERC- and DFID-funded IMPALA project (Improving Model Processes For African Climate) that Professor Richard Washington leads the evaluation element of.

Scientists were able to feedback on promising results, as IMPALA nears the end of its 4-year life span, with noticeable improvements to the accuracy of climate models being reported and exciting results from ground breaking new high resolution models.

IMPALA set itself the challenge of making a step change in climate modelling for Africa, explains Cath Senior, who is Principal Investigator on the project:

“Through the new models we have developed – including the ground breaking high resolution pan-Africa, CP4-Africa simulations; the new physics we have implemented; the process-based model evaluation that has pulled through to model development and the new tools and techniques that have aided understanding – we feel we have risen to this challenge”.

Wilfried Pokam, Lecturer in Physics at University of Yaoundé I in Cameroon, explains how his team have benefited from the partnership in IMPALA. “Involvement in hand-to-hand work with scientists from UK universities and the Met Office, through a model evaluation process, is a unique experience for African researchers, who have expertise in analysing African climate, but often limited opportunity to work directly with climate model data and with model developers.

“The gathering of like minds between UK universities, 10 African climate scientists and the Met Office is exactly the sort of partnership needed to move climate models forward in the face of the threats of climate in vulnerable communities.”

Professor Richard Washington, Professor of Climate Science This article was originally published by the School of Geography and the Environment.