The Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) has joined a £7.8m project to improve African weather forecasting capabilities and help governments better prepare for the dangers of extreme storms, droughts and floods.

CEH will work with the National Centre for Atmospheric Science (NCAS), as part of a team of 25 UK and 45 African atmospheric scientists, social scientists and operational forecasters, after gaining a share of £225m that is being invested across 37 interdisciplinary projects from the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) Research Councils UK Collective Fund.

The NCAS-led project, called GCRF African Science for Weather Information and Forecasting Techniques (GCRF African SWIFT), will work to provide timely weather forecasts to benefit millions of people across Africa who are vulnerable to severe weather events such as Sahelian storms – which are amongst the most explosive storms in the world.

Cattle and people on dry ground

A recent study led by CEH’s Professor Christopher Taylor, published in Nature*, analysed trends from 35 years of satellite observations across Africa and provided a unique insight into how some of the most violent storms in the world are responding to rising global temperatures. The paper highlighted how in 2009 a downpour of 263mm over several hours forced 150,000 residents of Ouagadougou, in Burkina Faso, to leave their homes.

Professor Taylor will provide to the GCRF African SWIFT project his expertise as a meteorologist and lead investigator on the AMMA-2050 project which focuses on extreme weather events in West Africa and how these relate to projections of changes in the average seasonal rainfall.

The GCRF African SWIFT project will work with forecast users to tailor the provision and delivery of weather forecasts using mobile SMS weather warnings to farmers and fishermen. The aim is to ensure improved responses to high-impact events (such as the onset of rains, heatwaves, dry spells and strong winds), improved emergency responses to extreme events – including flooding and prolonged droughts – and increased resilience for response to climate change.

Prof Taylor said, "Weather events in Africa can be strongly affected by conditions at the land surface. In this project we will be developing methods to use observations of the surface to make better forecasts, be they for the next few hours or several weeks ahead."

The Global Challenges Research Fund awarded the money to GCRF African SWIFT to enhance African forecasting capabilities to improve on hourly and seasonal timescales and provide a legacy of a research infrastructure that will benefit the wider developing world.

"Weather events in Africa can be strongly affected by conditions at the land surface. In this project we will be developing methods to use observations of the surface to make better forecasts, be they for the next few hours or several weeks ahead." Professor Chris Taylor, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology

Professor Alan Blyth, NCAS, University of Leeds, said, "The GCRF African SWIFT project will grow the research base in the UK and strengthen capability in several African countries for developing and using state-of-the-art satellite tools that will help to improve short time-scale weather forecasts."

The GCRF African Swift consortium stems from existing working partnerships with forecasting centres and universities in Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya. Over the course of the four-year programme research will be undertaken into the physics of tropical weather systems, evaluation and presentation of complex models and satellite data as well as the communication and exploitation of forecasts.

Additional information

The Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) is a £1.5bn fund that supports cutting-edge research which addresses the global issues faced by developing countries. It harnesses the expertise of the UK’s world-leading researchers, focusing on: funding challenge-led disciplinary and interdisciplinary research; strengthening capacity for research, innovation and knowledge exchange; and providing an agile response to emergencies where there is an urgent research need. It forms part of UK Government’s Official Development Assistance (ODA) commitment and is overseen by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), and delivered through 17 delivery partners including the Research Councils, the UK Academies, the UK Space Agency and funding bodies.

Research Councils UK issued a press release relating to this story.

See more about the AMMA-2050 project

Staff page of Professor Christopher Taylor, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology

* Nature paper reference: Christopher M Taylor, Danijel Belusic, Francois Guichard, Douglas J Parker, Theo Vischel, Oliver Brock, Philip P Harris, Serge Janicot, Cornelia Klein, Geremy Panthou, ‘Frequency of extreme Sahelian storms tripled since 1982 in satellite observations,’ Nature, published online 1800 GMT/1400 US Eastern Time, 27 April 2017. DOI: 10.1038/nature22069