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African climate research infrastructure gears up

17 Sep 2018
Illustration of carbon dioxide emissions
(Courtesy: iStock/BeholdingEye)

A network of observation stations for recording greenhouse gas and other emissions in Africa has nearly 25 times less capacity than the equivalent network in Europe, according to an international team of researchers.

The result, which highlights one of the areas of climate change research where Africa lags behind other continents, is part of a broader effort by Veronika Jorch of Thünen Institute of Climate-Smart Agriculture, Germany, and colleagues to establish a pan-African research infrastructure for greenhouse gas emissions.

The researchers believe that such an infrastructure would help in climate change prediction, mitigation and adaptation for the continent.

“A research infrastructure does not just appear like mushrooms after a bit of rain,” says Jorch. “It is a long process, and various factors have to come together.”

The team believes the infrastructure should include an extensive network of greenhouse-gas monitoring stations; a common goal to study the data from those stations and develop strategies for climate-change mitigation and adaptation; people to run the infrastructure; an international network of partners from different sectors; and long-term political and financial stability. It should also have a name. Europe’s greenhouse-gas research infrastructure, for example, is known as the Integrated Carbon Observation System (ICOS).

Africa has some elements of a research infrastructure, but according to Jorch it is particularly lacking in its international network. “There are enough potential partners and the willingness to build the network, but […] there is no long-term funding,” she says. “This means that the available corresponding greenhouse gas data are patchy and heterogeneous.”

Jorch and colleagues, who are based at more than 15 institutions across Africa and Europe, have taken the first steps to establishing a pan-African research infrastructure as part of the SEACRIFOG project, funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 framework. This part of the SEACRIFOG project, which Jorch coordinates, included an engagement with key stakeholders, a definition of key terms and an assessment of existing infrastructure.

The results showed that the number of observational stations in Africa was well below that in Europe or the US. For instance, the density of Global Atmospheric Watch stations, which measure levels of greenhouse gases, aerosols and other reactive gases, is almost 25 times lower than in Europe. The density of recordings is particularly poor in important ecosystems such as wetlands, the researchers say, but is greater in populated areas.

Stakeholders, meanwhile, raised concerns with the researchers about data quality and accessibility, and the lack of international networking, among other issues. In the final step, the researchers identified the key measurements needed to fill in the knowledge gaps.

“This future research infrastructure will allow us to understand better, and consequently predict better, the drivers, impacts and feedback loops between African ecosystems and climate change in the long term,” says Ana López-Ballesteros at Trinity College Dublin in Ireland.

The team published the study in Environmental Research Letters (ERL).

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