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Science Helping to Save Lives in Africa

Climate
Science Helping to Save Lives in Africa

U.S. Geological Survey

In parts of eastern Africa, drought is of increasing concern, as poor families suffer from food shortages and the inability to grow crops and sustain livestock. Stunted growth in children due to malnutrition has also been linked to climate trends in Africa.

Drought conditions are expected to continue as global temperatures continue to rise and rainfall declines across parts of eastern Africa.

This poses increased risk to millions of people in Africa who currently face potential food shortages.

What's being done to help?

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) is involved in a variety of research efforts to help understand current and future conditions in Africa, helping to inform plans to provide aid.

The Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) is one endeavor that has already made great strides in helping to address this issue. FEWS NET helps target more than $1.5 billion of assistance to more than 40 countries each year.

FEWS NET examines the populations of the developing world with the most food insecurity, identifying critical situations in which food aid will be needed. These are populations whose livelihoods are typically tied to subsistence rain-fed agriculture and pastoralism.

FEWS NET is sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Office of Food for Peace, and the USGS is actively involved.

FEWS NET at the United Nations Climate Convention

A USGS presentation on FEWS NET will be a featured side event Nov. 30 at the United Nations 17th annual Conference of the Parties (COP-17) in Durban, South Africa. The convention's purpose is to develop international agreements and a declaration of policies and practices for combating climate change and its impacts around the world.

Climate forecasts and remote sensing help spot future trouble

FEWS NET has developed its own climate services to provide decision makers with early identification of agricultural drought that might trigger food insecurity. Scientists use climate forecasts to develop forward-looking food security assessments that are based on expected agricultural outcomes for the season ahead.

Since networks of ground observation stations are often sparse or reported late in FEWS NET countries, satellite remote sensing of vegetation and rainfall fills in the gaps. Remote sensing from space allows for rapid, accurate assessments of a broad range of environmental and agricultural conditions. USGS scientists provide the technologies and expertise to support remote sensing for FEWS NET activities.

Early warning of famine in Somalia helps pre-position food supplies

On July 20, 2011, the United Nations declared parts of Somalia as a region of famine. The decision was supported by FEWS NET and USGS observational evidence of conditions in the area.

The declaration was the culmination of early warning communications encouraging—months before the crisis—that government and other agencies pre-position food and supplies in the region.

“None of the many uses of Earth-observing satellites is more vital—or has as much potential for prompting timely humanitarian intervention—as famine early warning,” said USGS Director Marcia McNutt. “Remote sensing from space allows USGS scientists to provide rapid, accurate assessments of a broad range of environmental and agricultural conditions.”

The eastern Horn of Africa, the continental region that encompasses Somalia, has experienced two consecutive seasons of very poor rainfall resulting in the worst drought in 60 years. Crops have failed, livestock deaths are widespread and food prices are very high. While the rains this winter have been good, food prices remain high, and the food security situation remains insecure.

Stunted growth linked to malnutrition and climate change

Other USGS research is helping to identify the impacts of a changing climate on Africa's people. Scientists recently discovered that malnutrition and dry hot living conditions are linked to stunted growth in Mali, West Africa.

USGS research found that Mali was becoming substantially warmer and a little bit drier. Scientists also knew that farmers and those who make a living raising sheep, cattle, goats, or camels were poor, and that stunted growth was occurring throughout Mali.

Scientists wondered if there could be a link between human health and increasingly warm and dry conditions.

To investigate, the USGS worked with the University of California, Santa Barbara, to study climate observations and demographic and health data. The Demographic and Health Survey program routinely compiles data from surveys in 90 countries to study trends in health and population. Scientists analyzed statistics on specific villages in Mali and found that there was a link between a warmer climate and increased stunting.

Population growth combined with the impacts of warming will further increase these health impacts.

Stunting was also linked to other factors, such as mother's education and the water supply system. Women’s education, improved water supplies and agricultural development could help to address malnutrition and stunting in Mali.

An article on this research was published in in the journal Applied Geography, by San Diego State University, the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the USGS.

Other studies underway

Other new research includes the discovery that the warming of the Indian and western Pacific oceans (which is linked to global warming) affects rainfall over large areas of the Horn of Africa. As the globe has warmed over the last century, the Indian Ocean and western Pacific have warmed especially fast.

The resulting warmer air and increased humidity over the Indian and western Pacific oceans produce more frequent rainfall in that region. The air loses its moisture during rainfall, and then flows westward and descends over Africa, leading to decreased rain in parts of eastern Africa. Trends toward increased frequency of drought that we are seeing now are likely to continue into the future as warming continues.

A few recent articles on this research were published in the journal Climate Dynamics, by scientists with the USGS, the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Los Alamos National Laboratory. The most recent article concludes that global warming will lead to a decrease in rainfall during the summer monsoon season, from June to September, across southern Sudan, southern Ethiopia and northern Uganda. Another article concluded that eastern Africa, particularly Kenya and southern Ethiopia, will also have a significant decrease in rainfall during the long-rains season from March to June.

USGS scientists are working hard to translate these technical studies into reports for decision makers. To date, they have completed summary fact sheets focused on Sudan and Kenya.

Scientists also found that some regions, like northern Ethiopia, are not getting drier due to current warming temperatures. Rainfall varies dramatically across all of eastern Africa, with high mountainous areas typically receiving many times the rainfall received in low-lying areas. Therefore, agricultural growth in these climatically safe regions could help offset rainfall declines in other locations.

Start with science

Scientists are looking at clues and changes in nature to understand the impacts of global warming. In Africa, impacts are seen across the landscape—on farms and even in humans.

By starting with science, well-informed decisions can be made to help Africa as it faces drought, famine and health concerns.

FEWS NET partners include the USAID, Chemonics International, the USGS, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The Geography Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is a partner to the USGS in this effort.

For more information, click here.

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A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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