The Big Picture: Drought and Wilted Crops in Southern Africa, as Seen From Space

The current El Niño pattern, likely worsened by climate change, has brought drought and hunger to southern Africa.
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The current El Niño pattern, likely worsened by climate change, has brought drought and hunger to southern Africa.

It's corn-planting season right now in southern Africa, but things aren't looking good. The current El Niño pattern has brought severe drought to the region, killing cattle and slashing projected yields for crops like corn, a staple food in the area. As a result, 14 million people, many of them subsistence farmers, are in danger of going hungry, according to the United Nations' World Food Program.

Land surface temperatures in southern Africa, December 2015. (Map: Jesse Allen and Joshua Stevens/NASA Earth Observatory)

Land surface temperatures in southern Africa, December 2015. (Map: Jesse Allen and Joshua Stevens/NASA Earth Observatory)

Thanks to satellite images, we're able to see the region's stresses from space. The map above was made from data collected by a National Aeronautics and Space Administration satellite. It shows that, in December 2015, much of southern Africa was significantly hotter than it has been on average over the last 15 years. The reddest parts of the map represent places where temperatures were at least 12 degrees Celsius higher than usual.

Below, NASA satellite data shows vegetation—as measured by the light it reflects into space—is suffering as a result of the drought. The rare, green portions of the map represent regions with lusher-than-normal vegetation for this time of year, while the yellow represents scarcer, more stressed plants.

Vegetation anomaly in southern Africa, December 2015. (Map: Jesse Allen and Joshua Stevens/NASA Earth Observatory)

Vegetation anomaly in southern Africa, December 2015. (Map: Jesse Allen and Joshua Stevens/NASA Earth Observatory)

Although countries have always had to deal with periodical El Niño events and their concomitant droughts and floods, global warming makes things worse. "The relative intensity of this El Niño is certainly related to climate change," Mary Scholes, a botanist who studies the effects of climate change at the University of Witwatersrand, told the Guardian.

In the future, climate scientists expect extreme El Niño events to occur more frequently as the planet warms.

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