Extreme heatwaves are not being recorded in Sub-Saharan Africa

Extreme heatwaves are not being recorded in Sub-Saharan Africa

University of Oxford news release
Environmental Change Institute

University of Oxford news release

Extreme heat events in sub-Saharan Africa are rapidly worsening because of climate change – but the records suggest they are not happening, according to new analysis published today by the University of Oxford, raising concerns over global efforts to combat climate change.

For more than 100 years, the official records show no significant heatwave impacts in Sub-Saharan Africa, despite it being a ‘literal hotspot for heatwave activity’, explains Dr Luke Harrington, study author and a senior researcher at Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute.

Extreme heatwave events can lead to economic losses, serious health impacts, and deaths in vulnerable communities. Heatwave action plans and early warning systems are invaluable in mitigating the impacts of extreme temperatures. But, without accurate records, such work can be undermined.

‘Both real-world observations and climate modelling show sub-Saharan Africa as a hotspot for heatwave activity’, says Dr Harrington. ‘But these heatwaves are not being recorded. It’s as if they haven’t happened, but we know they have.’

Dr Harrington maintains, ‘There is an urgent need to address this discrepancy to help regional policymakers assess and plan for the future impacts of extreme heat.’

Dr Friederike Otto, study author and acting director of the Environmental Change Institute, says, ‘Sub-Saharan Africa is going to be disproportionately affected by worsening heatwaves due to climate change, and the current lack of data is directly hurting the region’s ability to prepare.

‘Researchers, practitioners and funders need to come together and correct these reporting biases. Our study identifies a particular need for increased international efforts to analyse and record historic meteorological data, but we also know local research collaborations – for example with hospitals and epidemiologists – are crucial to understanding complex heatwave impacts. While data and information alone won’t lead to more resilience, the absence of data makes it very difficult to prepare for the impacts of extreme heat, and this is especially true for one of the world’s most rapidly changing regions.’

Mohamed Adow, Director of Power Shift Africa, a Nairobi-based climate and energy think tank, who was not part of the study, says, ‘There’s a philosophical saying, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” People in Africa are certainly aware of the growing number of heatwaves on the continent but if they are not being recorded by scientists it will be much harder for African voices to be heard in the climate debate.’

‘Despite being the most impacted continent by the climate crisis, African voices are already marginalised. The lack of scientific data on our suffering only underlines this. It’s vital that African heatwaves are recorded, to drive action both by African governments and also international leaders. Africa is the canary in the coalmine when it comes to climate change. But if we don’t fully know how much the canary is suffering, it’s not good for the canary or for the rest of the world either.’

Today’s study shows just two heatwaves in sub-Saharan Africa have been listed in the past 120 years in the Emergency Events Database (EM-DAT). This is the most comprehensive catalogue of the impacts of extreme weather events globally. By contrast, 83 European heatwaves have been listed in the last 40 years – events which resulted in more than 140,000 deaths and some $12 billion in damages.

Heatwaves in sub-Saharan Africa are different events compared to those in Europe, where heat action plans are generally triggered when temperatures are predicted to be high for more than three days and heatwaves usually do not last longer than a few weeks. In contrast, in sub-Saharan Africa in 1992, one heatwave lasted more than four months – compounding the impact of one of the worst droughts in recent history. Yet the EM-DAT contains no record of this extreme heat.

Multiple factors contribute to differences in heatwave reporting rates. Barriers faced by actors in sub-Saharan Africa include the sparsity of meteorological data, weaker governance frameworks and lack of institutional resources. Meanwhile, European governments have developed systems to report heatwaves in increasing detail – helping to reduce the impacts when such extreme events happen.

The value of identifying and reporting heatwaves and their impacts is clear, according to the report. When reliable data is combined with local expertise the impacts of heatwaves can be predictable, and this foresight can prevent unnecessary deaths. Improving this kind of data is vital to reducing the risks of extreme weather and climate-related events.


  1. For media enquiries, please contact Lucy Erickson at lucy.erickson@ouce.ox.ac.uk (+44 (0)7774 840631) or news.office@admin.ox.ac.uk
  2. Dr Friederike Otto is available for interview – friederike.otto@ouce.ox.ac.uk
  3. An embargoed copy of the paper is available on request.
  1. The paper will be published in Nature Climate Change on 13 July 2020 at 4pm UK time (BST) and will be available at http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/s41558-020-0851-8

Environmental Change Institute

The Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford was established in 1991. Its aim is to organize and promote interdisciplinary research on the nature, causes and impact of environmental change and to contribute to the development of management strategies for coping with future environmental change.

About Oxford University

Oxford University has been placed number 1 in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings for the third year running, and at the heart of this success is our ground-breaking research and innovation. Oxford is world-famous for research excellence and home to some of the most talented people from across the globe. Our work helps the lives of millions, solving real-world problems through a huge network of partnerships and collaborations. The breadth and interdisciplinary nature of our research sparks imaginative and inventive insights and solutions. Through its research commercialisation arm, Oxford University Innovation, Oxford is the highest university patent filer in the UK and is ranked first in the UK for university spinouts, having created more than 170 new companies since 1988. Over a third of these companies have been created in the past three years

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