This blog is part of an interview blog series called “Behind the Scenes.” It includes interviews with USAID leaders, program implementers, Mission Directors, and development issue experts who help fulfill USAID’s mission. They are a casual behind-the-scenes look into USAID’s daily effort to deliver economic, development and humanitarian assistance around the world — and the results we’ve seen.
When did you first become interested in climate research?
New England snow storms sparked my interest in weather at a young age. As an undergraduate, I attended the University of Massachusetts to study Meteorology. During my second year as an undergraduate, I became interested in how weather patterns behaved over the entire globe on longer timescales, climate time scales. I attended graduate school at the University of Massachusetts and worked on projects that linked Central Asia climate to the tropical Indian and Pacific Oceans. The regional atmospheric circulations of Central Asia, the Middle East and East Africa are intertwined, so those are now my regions of focus.
Can you talk a little bit about how UC Santa Barbara and FEWS NET work together to explain the broader concept of food security?
I can only speak to the climate side at UC Santa Barbara. At UC Santa Barbara, we’re interested in how rainfall has recently changed over East Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia and what climate features have forced those changes. We take the lessons that we’ve learned from the recent changes and we draw conclusions about how the climate will change in the future.
When you first began researching climatic weather patterns in the Western Pacific Ocean, did you have any idea that your work would help guide future international development decision making?
I’ve been researching the links between the tropical western Pacific Ocean and the global climate since about 2006, my first year of graduate school. Initially, graduate students, including me, are usually focused on learning or pleasing their advisor. In 2008, I met Chris Funk of the Climate Hazards Group at UCSB, and we collaborated on a paper that investigated the links between the Indian Ocean sea surface temperatures and East African climate and how those links influence food security. This was the first time I considered that my work might guide international development and decision making.
What was the motivation for writing about drying conditions in the East Africa Horn? What did you and your team seek to explain?
Our overarching goal is to understand how climate variability influences East Africa. This paper is a very brief review that links recent changes in East African climate (since the late 1990s) to an abrupt warming in west Pacific sea surface temperatures. The video below explains more.
What sorts of technology and techniques did you use in this study?
In the beginning of our study, we show how the climate from 1999 until recently has behaved in terms of East African rainfall and tropical Indo-Pacific Ocean sea surface temperatures. From this, we were able to show that (at least) superficially that East Africa rainfall and tropical Indo-west Pacific Ocean sea surface temperatures could be related.
In the second part of our study, we use an atmospheric model forced by observed sea surface temperatures to confirm that west Pacific sea surface temperature changes were influencing East African rainfall. The study can be found here (Article 15).
What’s next for you and your team? How will you continue to work with FEWS NET to explain climate patterns and its effects on food security?
Our team will continue to investigate what factors influence climate variability over East Africa, the Middle East (specifically Yemen) and Central Asia. We focus on a wide variety of time scales, from individual seasons to multiple decades. We are most concerned with changes on decadal time scales because they are most important to long-term food and water security. However, our understanding of climate variability for individual seasons is also very important because it is this climate variability that primarily forces short-term droughts and famines (e.g. 2010/2011 over East Africa).
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