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African climate – a collaborative approach to producing compelling narratives


A blog post from Dr Mark Harrison, Head of UK Applied Science at the Met Office. 

Last month the University of Leeds hosted a two-week virtual hackathon with the aim of generating usable and impactful climate narratives for decision makers in East and West Africa. This event was part of series supporting by the Met Office following our own Climate Data Challenge in March of this year, and I was excited to have the opportunity to listen to the summary session and find out about what had taken place.

The event included over 20 students and researchers from the UK, Kenya and Ghana, and a number of speakers who helped to set the scene and define the challenge the hackathon sought to address. More information can be found on the event website, but the overall challenge was to bring together sources of information to present narratives of possible future climate in as compelling a way as possible by putting possible future weather events and variability into context by using past events. Following the introductory sessions, two teams were formed to tackle two different challenges.

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Energy generation

The first team addressed a challenge from KenGen, the Kenya Electricity Generating Company PLC, and focused on the operations of the Masinga Dam. Specifically they were interested in whether it was likely that there would be more instances of lengthy dry spells that might cause the dam to shut down or whether increased rainfall would require water to be released to avoid overtopping. The team was able to obtain information regarding the maximum and minimum operating limits for the reservoir as well as water height from 1981 – 2015. They then built a predictive model using observations of precipitation and evaporation to predict overflow and drought shutdowns, and also looked at historical events that caused drought shutdowns and looked for similar events in future projections.

The impact of water levels on water supply and energy generation is significant, and this was a great example of how analysis such as this could help companies such as KenGen plan for the future given the changing climate. With more time and a greater level of certainty in the models, I felt that a compelling narrative could be further developed.


The second team was looking at the impact of climate change on the agriculture sector in Ghana, informed by the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ghana Cocoa Board. They considered the frequency and severity of dry-spells and droughts and the implications for this sector. The result of their work highlighted the potential for a significant increase in the risk of severe droughts under a higher emission scenario with far less impact under a lower emission scenario. The impact of droughts in Africa is already keenly felt and understanding any potential increase in frequency and severity will be critical for adaptation efforts in the region. With more focus on the users of a narrative on this and further data in addition to climate information, this kind of information has the potential to be very useful for planners.


Hackathon events are, by their nature, time bound, so the final outputs are not necessarily the finished ‘article’, as we also found in our Climate Data Challenge. They are, however, a great way to engage minds in a cross-disciplinary way to tackle problems, highlighting the value in bringing different specialisms and experience together in order to include varying perspectives. It was great to see how this worked at the Leeds University event and I look forward to discussions about how the outputs could be used to inspire further collaboration. Well done to John Marsham, Jane Standbury and everyone involved with making this event a success.