Modeling Interactions between Climate and the Living System in West Africa

Two UConn-led studies may help shape climate prediction, food policy, and development investment.

Guiling Wang, director of the environmental engineering program, and Jeremy S. Pal of Loyola Marymount University, work in the lab.
Guiling Wang, director of the Environmental Engineering Program, and Jeremy Pal of Loyola Marymount University, work in the lab. (Christopher LaRosa/UConn Photo)

The complex relationships between climate and the way in which humans shape and harness the land’s resources, and between natural vegetation and climate, are the subject of two major research projects recently launched by a team led by associate professor of civil and environmental engineering Guiling Wang.

UConn will receive more than $900,000 in combined funding for the two projects.

Wang, the director of UConn’s Environmental Engineering Program, is the principal investigator on the two three-year projects, both involving climate modeling in West Africa.

The team also includes co-principal investigator Chuanrong Zhang, assistant professor of geography in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Jeremy Pal, associate professor of civil engineering and environmental science at Loyola Marymount University, and Liangzhi You, senior scientist at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). Wang and Zhang are both affiliated with UConn’s Center for Environmental Sciences & Engineering.

The first study, a pilot project supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) through a joint NSF, U.S. Department of Energy, and U.S. Department of Agriculture program, aims to tease out how climate influences the way in which people use the land, and how that activity may in turn further influence climate. The second, also funded by NSF, tackles the relationship between natural vegetation and regional climate. Wang says the two projects, which focus on two different aspects of the “living system”—managed and natural ecosystems, complement each other.

North and West Africa have experienced devastating drought since the 1960s. Water scarcity and the resulting limitation on crop production make the region particularly vulnerable to future droughts, which result from both temperature increases and changes in precipitation. With much of the population of West Africa reliant on subsistence farming, lives are increasingly imperiled, even as unsustainable land use practices contribute to the drought.

Wang, whose doctoral thesis examined the role of vegetation dynamics on climate in West Africa, notes that current models of future climate prediction give insufficient consideration to either the role of human activities such as land use, or natural vegetation dynamics.

Land Use-Climate Interactions

Since at least the great Dust Bowl of the 1930s, climatologists have recognized the link between land use and climate, but the extent to which this link matters has not been fully established or quantified. When humans clear-cut forests for farming or ranching, this not only releases carbon that had been “fixed” within the live plants, it increases erosion and alters the regional climate by modifying the regional energy and water cycles. These, in turn, affect plant/crop growth, which further influences land use patterns.

Wang and her colleagues believe that climate models must consider both land use by humans as an important driver for climate change, and climate adaptation through changes in land use in response to climate changes. They will link five models—a regional climate model, a dynamic vegetation model, a crop growth model, an agricultural economics model, and a land use allocation model—to forge a framework that can develop and test predictive climate and land-use models to the year 2050.

Wang says results from the project “will provide scientific foundations for food policy and targeted investment in climate change adaptation.”

One facet of the project involves on-the-ground data collection and outreach to local farmers. IFPRI—which has offices in locations around Africa—brings to the project unique access to local policy analysts and data on farming practices and trends. The project will also provide much needed information for the IFPRI’s HarvestChoice program, which is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Vegetation-Climate Interactions

The second project will explore the relationship between natural vegetation and the regional climate in West Africa and will contribute to better regional climate predictions.

Through its impact on evapo-transpiration, surface reflectivity, and roughness, vegetation influences precipitation. Certain regions across the globe are more susceptible to this interaction, including North and West Africa. Read a related story here.

Wang and her colleagues will use several models for this project, including a National Center for Atmospheric Research model that can predict vegetation dynamics and the International Center of Theoretical Physics Regional Climate Model.

Among the questions they hope to answer are: How does dynamic vegetation feedback influence the predicted future trend of precipitation, and how will future climate changes modify the competition between different vegetation types?

Wang predicts that although some aspects of the results will be region-dependent, the scientific questions to be addressed and the process-based understanding derived from this project will be applicable to other regions and other models. Collaborating with IFPRI also provides a mechanism for the project to influence food policy and long-term agricultural research and development investment.