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African monsoon project to benefit crops and healthcare
Researchers unravelling the complexities of the West African monsoon say they are set to bring major agricultural and health benefits to people in the region — despite setbacks caused by terrorist threats and wars in the Sahel region.

The African Monsoon Multidisciplinary Analysis (AMMA) programme, a consortium of over 400 researchers from 30 countries that was started 14 years ago, has gathered a wealth of new data about the West African monsoon from across the Sahel, and is now inspiring similar projects elsewhere in Africa.

The new dataset is enabling the researchers to improve climate prediction models for West Africa, which in turn will help to forecast farming success and disease outbreaks in the region. They are now extending the project to coastal areas of West Africa.

Crop forecasts will be produced by the AGRHYMET (Agrometeorology, Hydrology and Meteorology) center in Niger. The forecasts could allow the millions of people who depend on the monsoon for subsistence agriculture to make better-informed decisions.

For example, if farmers can be certain that the next season will be a drought, then they know it is not worth buying expensive fertilizer and seeds, says Richard Washington, a climate scientist at the University of Oxford, United Kingdom.

The scientists hope that AMMA will also help forecast health risks throughout West Africa because diseases such as meningitis and malaria are influenced by the monsoon, says Doug Parker, meteorology professor at the University of Leeds, United Kingdom, and a UK coordinator for AMMA.

These forecasts are now being prepared in Burkina Faso and Senegal.

Parker says that the dust that arrives in West Africa during the dry season triggers meningitis outbreaks. The threat of meningitis subsides with the onset of the rainy season — when malaria outbreaks rise.

Gathering the data

The initial AMMA data collection project focused on the wet region of the Sahel. A separate program called Fennec built on AMMA to collect data for the first time from the drier region of the central Sahara that plays a key role in influencing the West African monsoon.

Central Sahara was an "enormous blank on our climatic map of the continent", says Parker.

"We got an excellent dataset from a place [central Sahara] where there was almost nothing before, which will be part of the process of getting the [climate] models to work better over the region," says Washington, who led Fennec.

Washington says that Fennec was difficult because of civil unrest in northern Mali, where they could not deploy instruments, and southern Algeria, where travel is still impossible without a military escort.

Despite the difficulties, Fennec researchers managed to install six automatic weather stations throughout 'the empty quarter' of central Sahara and two 'supersites' — a large collection of high specification instruments — on the Algerian-Mali border and in Mauritania during the summer of 2011 and 2012.

"One circuit to deploy the weather stations took 26 days by car through regions that are extremely difficult to get through. And doing that in the heat of summer when the temperatures get up into the mid-40s [centigrade] every day is dangerous work. The circuit is several thousand kilometers off-road — it's hard work," Washington says.

The scientists also flew a jet for more than 200 hours into regions where dust storms were raging, which "is pretty scary and makes you feel ill", says Washington.

Nick Kennedy
Source: Science Development Network

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