Chris Funk, climatologist

A geographer mulls whether better climate models will help African farmers avoid the dire consequences of climate change. Interview by John C. Cannon

May 25, 2008

Photo courtesy of UC Santa Barbara

The tie-dye patterns on the computer screen of climatologist Chris Funk display water temperatures in the Indian Ocean, two continents away from his office at UC Santa Barbara. The climate models that Funk derives from those temperatures transcend the need for umbrellas and galoshes. Rather, his beneficiaries are millions of Africans living hand-to-mouth off their continent's unforgiving landscape.

Through his involvement with the Famine Early Warning System Network, or FEWS NET — funded by the United States Agency for International Development — Funk hopes to shed light on the prognostic power of sea-surface temperatures. The models predict that as temperatures in the Indian Ocean rise, so will the incidence of droughts in critical areas of eastern and southern Africa where food security is a major issue.

Funk, 41, a researcher in UCSB's geography department, has focused his career on improving rainfall forecasting. But after meeting Jim Verdin of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), who led the FEWS NET forecasting system, Funk chose to steer his work toward even greater societal impact.

Now, as weather modeling becomes more sophisticated, scientists like Funk can stare into their crystal balls to forecast months in advance how the African rainy season will pan out. Dovetailing those short-term projections with global weather patterns measured over years or decades suggests how climate change will affect the most marginal inhabited areas of our planet. The doomsday scenarios of melting glaciers and rising sea levels grab most headlines. But the subsistence agriculturalist who depends on the land to provide her next meal may feel the most drastic effects of human-induced changes in weather patterns.

At the February 2008 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston, Funk spoke about applying his scientific expertise to the most basic of human needs.

How do you describe yourself when people ask you what you do?

I call myself an applied climatologist-geographer. I wear a couple of hats. Most of the work I do would be considered traditional applied climatology — creating time series of rainfall, creating maps, interpolating data. As I tried to express myself, I got pulled into the climate-change debate — not that I'm a climate-change scientist.

Could you give a basic overview of what FEWS NET is?

Historically, FEWS NET was founded after the terrible Ethiopian famine in 1984-86. Essentially, the American response was, 'This cannot happen again.' In the same era, these satellites were coming in with all their [weather] data. FEWS NET is a system for monitoring pre-famine conditions in Africa and guiding responses to prevent people from starving.

How did you get involved with this program?

I was a master's student at UCSB working on rainfall mapping and modeling. The director of the USGS part of the forecasting system, Jim Verdin, came to UCSB to work on his dissertation. Talking to him about FEWS NET, I was like, 'Wow.' I was interested in modeling and mapping rain. So if you're going to do it, why not do it for a place that it's a life-and-death matter? It was just one of those chance encounters that can really influence your life. Being able to use science for some societal benefit seemed really great.

This does seem to be an area of science that literally means survival for those in question.

It's not the General Theory of Relativity, but I think it's pretty important. Sometimes, people are very hesitant to embrace this as scientists.

"I think there's a kind of north-south tragedy going on here. People in the north have emitted a lot of carbon into the atmosphere, and that change to our planet has been concentrated to affect preferentially a lot of poor people who didn't create it."

Who are the players in FEWS NET?

In Africa, there are probably about a hundred African monitoring scientists — specialists [who] monitor price conditions and cultural traditions. They're really the scientists on the ground. In the United States, a few principal scientists monitor satellite data.

And what are they looking for?

What you try to find is a convergence of evidence. And really, you need both sets of information. In the case of Niger [in 2004], you could see the drought, but you couldn't see that you had a weird inversion in the price gradient between Nigeria and Niger that year. Food access was a lot more difficult than normal. You'd never see that from space.

Can you talk a little bit about the advantages of having so many 'scientists on the ground' in Africa? What do they bring to the analyses?

First of all, they bring the idea of monitoring prices, varying policy, social unrest, seed distribution, whether people have planted more or less cropped area [this year], and a host of important contributors to food security that are not really environmental. Even in a perfect monitoring world, we couldn't see them. And secondly, though we tend to hide it, these satellite observation systems are far from perfect. So before you're going to start shipping aid, you have to have a convergence of evidence from several different sources. [If] I'm sitting at UCSB looking at my rainfall data, and somebody's reading the agricultural reports getting the same story, then we know we've got to act.

Has this collaboration been successful?

You know, FEWS NET and the World Food Programme (the United Nations food aid agency) have been tremendously successful at keeping people from starving. But what it doesn't do is address this chronic problem. It's good at moving food aid so people don't starve, but I think over the last 20 years, people have begun to realize this hasn't been enough. Now it's really become the dominant form of aid for Africa.

And it's brought a brand-new set of political and social problems.

Yeah, it has.

For a minute, maybe we can forget it's a life-or-death matter for people in these food-insecure places. Why should we in the developed world care about how climate change affects the developing world?

From an economic perspective, countries like Kenya or Zimbabwe basically don't exist in terms of the world markets. They're such a small fraction of the global economy that there's no market feedback. But I do think we're going to see political fallout arising from food insecurity. Is the current political unrest in Kenya related to the fact that they've had two failed seasons in a row? I don't know, but they may not be totally unrelated.

That's certainly a good question to ask.

Yeah, if you want to have good governance by democratic institutions, it's not going to happen properly if they're chronically warring or have 30% child malnutrition rates.

Do you think we in the developed world are missing the effects that changing patterns in climate might be having on the developing world, in areas where people are living on the brink of survival?

I think so. From a human citizen perspective, I think there's a kind of north-south tragedy going on here. People in the north have emitted a lot of carbon into the atmosphere, and that change to our planet has been concentrated to affect preferentially a lot of poor people who didn't create it. So, there's a sort of environmental justice issue. And then, there are a lot of strange politics. It's very hard to get people to pay for development. It's easy for food aid. Then it's dumped on local markets, depress[ing] the food prices there, and provid[ing] a disincentive to farmers — in most cases, not the best tactic.

Can you talk a little about the difference between the predictions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) about rainfall and the projections from the Indian Ocean you've come up with?

The IPCC has many different models. They'll take these models, and they increase the carbon, the ozone, the aerosols. Then, they project that into the future with different scenarios. But there's no real data about how the atmosphere interacts with the ocean. The models have a hard time modeling rain. These precipitation models probably work pretty well in a place like the United States, where the models were developed. But places like East Africa, where you have complicated terrain, the models don't perform well. You have a strong relationship between rainfall and sea surface temperatures. When I looked over the oceans, all the models tended to agree: There were going to be increasing sea surface temperatures. And so what I've done is look at that dynamically, and [I've] been able to statistically predict rainfall.

Do you see any particular environment that's most vulnerable to such climate change?

The biggest danger is to the semi-pastoral areas — Kenya, Ethiopia. So, basically, you look at some of the population models. Some of these areas are really just cows and people, living in areas that might get 300 to 500 millimeters (about 12 to 20 inches) of rain a year. And they're having five, six, seven kids. It's kind of a waiting time bomb. As usual, it's the most marginal areas that will be the most heavily affected.

What are the most exciting aspects of the interdisciplinary discourse for you?

In the next five years or so, [we'll take] the monitoring and forecasting stuff we do and use it to improve agricultural production and reduce food shortfalls. I'd much rather try to get information to people in ways that can improve farm productivity. What if you think it's going to be a good rainfall year? Don't you think we should be doing things like making sure there are plenty of seeds, fertilizer, and storage space so that opportunity to get ahead of the curve isn't missed? Right now, we have a very one-sided, disaster-oriented system. I hope I can start working with NGOs [non-governmental organizations] so that information might be more beneficial.

John C. Cannon, a graduate student in the Science Communication Program at UC Santa Cruz, earned a B.S. in biology from The Ohio State University. He was a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger for two years. He has worked as a reporting intern at the Stanford University News Office, the Salinas Californian, and the Santa Cruz Sentinel. John will spend his summer as a science writing intern at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

© 2008 John C. Cannon