Global climate modelling needs focus on tropical climates

Image copyright Italian Institute of Science Image caption An experiment developed in Madagascar showed how one species of wood is able to change colour based on the quality of water

A study of farming techniques in Madagascar that could help better predict droughts in the world’s poorest countries highlights the complexities of climate change.

It also reveals that the majority of farmers in Madagascar have benefited from climate change in the last decade.

The research, funded by the European Commission and published in Science, studied how best to adapt to changes caused by climate change.

The study highlights the difficulties of combining tropical studies with descriptions of everyday farming practices in developing countries.

Most climate models predict the impacts of climate change in climates closer to the North Pole than to tropical areas such as Madagascar.

“The climate models do provide good predictions for places like Antarctica, Central Africa, Siberia,” says Dr Constantine Galiatsatos, from the Italian Institute of Science in Milan, one of the authors of the study.

“But there is a big gap between what the models predict and what is happening in the tropics.”

Climate change models and their predictions of future climates around the world have a direct impact on farmers, but human civilisation does not fit within the constraints of climate models.

Scientists therefore needed to develop models to simulate how farming practices affected drought-induced crop failures.

The model results reported in Science for Malagasy farming shows that the good performance of some crops reflects the quality of water that falls on the crops, rather than the weather.

Image copyright Italian Institute of Science Image caption You can see the varying properties of soil changes through satellite imagery

Dr Galiatsatos says: “There are different attributes of different crop types. They may not be directly related to the weather. It is only when the agricultural domain is directly compared to the other domains, which is a climate domain, where you can show that certain factors affect the yields of these crops.

“Or it could be that there is a highly variable climatic situation in Madagascar that is caused by past droughts or past rainfall and changes in the runoff of groundwater. We can see clearly that the floods and droughts are more than merely a matter of weather conditions.”

As climate change continues, the same conclusions are likely to be repeated in agricultural landscapes around the world.

The application of agricultural modelling is particularly important in emerging climate zones, where farms do not have a lot of information on their current productivity, because the droughts and floods described in the Study would be experienced as new experiences.

The agriculture model results show that the majority of farming families in Madagascar have managed to achieve significant improvement in crop production due to climate change.

More than 90% of the households covered by the study have shown some reduction in household food insecurity, driven by growing harvests and also on the back of higher agricultural yields resulting from climate change.

More information on these findings is available from Science.

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