What the IPCC Report means for South Africa
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The news for southern Africa is not good according to the sixth report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released earlier in August.
We now know with certainty that the Earth is reaching points of no return.
The planet is warming, ice caps and glaciers are melting at astonishing rates, the sea levels are rising, ocean currents are on the brink of collapse, droughts and floods are becoming more frequent and severe.
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What does this mean for South Africa?
Data obtained by the IPCC study pointed to numerous changes to climate and weather patterns all over Africa. Average temperatures and heat extremes were shown to be above natural variations compared to the 50 years between 1850 and 1900.
Recorded land-based surface temperature increases have been higher in Africa than the global average. The report noted that human-induced factors were the dominant driver of the higher-than-normal temperatures.
The increased frequency of heatwaves as well as cold waves are predicted to continue well into the rest of the 21 st century, with marine heatwaves also projected to increase in frequency and severity along Africa’s coastlines.
Sea levels around Africa rose at a higher rate than recorded globally over the past 30 years. The report states with confidence that “relative sea-level rise is likely to continue around Africa, contributing to increases in the frequency and severity of coastal flooding in low-lying areas, (and) coastal erosion along most sandy coasts”, and that the “frequency and intensity of heavy precipitation events are projected to increase almost everywhere in Africa”.
The report divided Africa into nine geographical regions: the Mediterranean region, West Africa, the Sahara including parts of the Sahel, north-eastern Africa, central Africa, south-eastern Africa, west Southern Africa, east Southern Africa, and Madagascar.
South Africa falls within both west and east Southern Africa with the division running straight done the centre of the country. The western region includes the Western Cape, the southern parts of the Eastern Cape, the western Free State, the Northern Cape and much of North West. The eastern regions include KZN, Gauteng, the eastern Free State, Limpopo, and Mpumalanga.
The report says the west Southern African region has seen an average decrease in rainfall over the study period with an increase of short periods of heavy rainfall leading to flooding. Scientists also observed an increase in aridity which are projected to increase in frequency and severity into the rest of the century.
The report predicts an average temperature increase of 1.5°C which would lead to further scarcity of fresh water in an already arid region. Average wind speeds are projected to increase all along the region, leading to more and increasingly severe bush fires.
The east Southern African region recorded a similar outlook with annual decrease in average rainstorms and more floods. Extended dry seasons with severe droughts are predicted to increase in frequency in the region, with projected increases in fire conditions and higher average wind speeds.
Eastern coastal regions of Southern Africa, mainly Mozambique and extreme northern KwaZulu-Natal – which currently experiences tropical cyclones – will see an increase of average tropical cyclone wind speeds, the proportion of category 4-5 tropical cyclones, and associated heavy rainfall.
With the widening of the equatorial warm belt, these tropical cyclones will move further south and may affect more populated regions of KZN such as eThekwini, which may have neither the infrastructure nor expertise to deal with them.
According to measurements by the statistics website, Index Mundi, South Africa ranks the 44 th driest country in the world, receiving an average annual rainfall of 495mm in 2014. A growing population and an explosion of urban and industrial development have already placed immense pressure on scarce water sources.
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The country is taking more freshwater from the environment that can be replaced naturally. With the South African average rainfall expected to decrease, we’re in for a dry and bumpy ride.