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TGI-Led Research Finds Shifting Climate Regions Leading to Hotter, Drier Conditions Across Kenya

by Maggie Rotermund
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Findings have significant implications for agricultural land use and ecosystem management and highlight the urgent need for climate adaptation strategies in Kenya

ST. LOUIS - Research published in Regional Environmental Change has shown that as climate zones shift toward hotter and drier conditions, ecological diversity will decline, posing a major threat to terrestrial ecosystems with far-reaching social and ecological impacts.

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The study, “Shifting climate zones and expanding tropical and arid climate regions across Kenya (1980-2020),” published online on April 5.  

The research team analyzed Kenya's geographic distribution and arrangement of climate zones between 1980-2020.

Over that time, tropical climate regions expanded from 91 to 93% with over 13,000 square kilometers shifting from alpine and temperate regions to tropical ones, and arid climate regions expanded from 72 to 81%, a roughly 50,000 km2 shift from humid and semi-humid-to-semi-arid to arid regions.

“With a better understanding of how climate shifts occurred in an environment like Kenya, we can estimate how food security will be impacted in other regions with similar geographic patterns,” said Enbal Shacham, Ph.D., professor of behavioral science and health education at Saint Louis University’s College for Public Health and Social Justice and acting director of strategic initiatives for the Taylor Geospatial Institute.

The first author is Ted J. Lawrence, a former post-doctoral fellow at the Taylor Geospatial Institute. Shacham is the paper’s senior author.

The research team looked at how temperature and precipitation trends changed over time and how the geographic distribution and arrangement of climate zones in Kenya shifted due to those trends.

The team focused on Kenya because rain-fed agriculture is central to the country’s economy and it is a key food-producing country for the East African region.

Data showed that in addition to the 1-degree Celsius increase in temperature, there was a decrease in precipitation during the country’s primary rainy season (Spring) and an increase in precipitation in the secondary rainy season (Fall).

An area of 76,346 square kilometers shifted from cooler to hotter zones, while 1,298 square kilometers shifted from hotter to cooler zones. Human-induced climate change significantly alters the spatial-temporal patterns of climate zones, driving agricultural land use and ecosystem change. Changes to the climate zone alter the biological and physical properties of the ecosystem, leading to a change in what an ecosystem can support.

The researchers reviewed data from a variety of sources, including:

The team assessed the average annual and seasonal temperature and precipitation trends to understand Kenyan climate change between 1975-2020 before creating climate reference maps. The maps represented temperature and precipitation zones in 1980, 2000 and 2020.

Human-induced climate change in Kenya resembles global trends, the research found, with certain regions being more sensitive to the forces of climate change.

As climate zones shift toward hotter and drier conditions, ecological diversity will decline, posing a major threat to terrestrial ecosystems with far-reaching social and ecological impacts.

Information on climate change and shifting climate zones in this paper can be used to investigate a variety of ecological questions and aid in the effort to reach the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

Additional authors include Justin M. Vilbig, a geospatial data scientist in SLU’s Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences and TGI; Geoffrey Kangogo, a Ph.D. student in SLU’s College for Public Health and Social Justice; Eric M. Fevre, University of Liverpool, UK, and International Livestock Research Institute, Kenya; Sharon L. Deem, Institute for Conservation Medicine at the Saint Louis Zoo; Ilona Gluecks, International Livestock Research Institute, Kenya; and Vasit Sagan, Ph.D., associate professor of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Saint Louis University and acting director of TGI.

This work was supported in part by the Taylor Geospatial Institute and a seed research grant from the Living Earth Collaborative at Washington University in St. Louis. Furthermore, this research was also supported in part by the UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the Department for International Development, the Economic & Social Research Council, the Medical Research Council, the Natural Environment Research Council, and the Defence Science & Technology Laboratory, under the Zoonoses and Emerging Livestock Systems (ZELS) programme, grant reference BB/L019019/1.

This study also received support from the CGIAR One Health initiative “Protecting Human Health Through a One Health Approach,” which was supported by contributors to the CGIAR Trust Fund. The authors thank the University of Liverpool’s Open Access team for support of the CC-BY open access license for this article.

Taylor Geospatial Institute

The TGI consortium includes Saint Louis University, the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, Harris-Stowe State University, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Missouri University of Science & Technology, University of Missouri-Columbia, University of Missouri-St. Louis, and Washington University in St. Louis. Collectively, these institutions encompass more than 5,000 faculty and 100,000 students. 

TGI aims to advance geospatial science through multi-institutional, interdisciplinary collaborations to create innovative, real-world solutions to grand societal challenges. It supports a collaborative research and training environment and while shaping the future of geospatial science in the U.S.

Saint Louis University

Founded in 1818, Saint Louis University is one of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious Catholic institutions. Rooted in Jesuit values and its pioneering history as the first university west of the Mississippi River, SLU offers more than 15,200 students a rigorous, transformative education of the whole person. At the core of the University’s diverse community of scholars is SLU’s service-focused mission, which challenges and prepares students to make the world a better, more just place.