Worst drought in 60 years parches Africa; famine, death spreads

The drought that you may or may not have heard of in the Horn of Africa – it's difficult parsing all the droughts that spread in one of the driest regions out there – is proving to be an enduring, worsening crisis for millions of starving Africans.

Some are calling it the worst drought that eastern African has suffered through in 60 years. Livestock are dropping dead, food prices are through the roof and more than 11 million people (a number that is growing) are in need of food assistance in Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti. The arid conditions are feeding famines in Somalia, where the United Nations says malnutrition rates have approached 50 percent in some areas, the highest rates in the world.

Tens of thousands of people have died in the past few months. East Africa right now is the world's "worst humanitarian disaster," according to the chief of the United Nations' Refugee Agency. Here's a taste of what's happening:

But maps only say so much. To get a grasp on the human toll of the disaster, try reading this AP account of children left for dead along the roadways. There are also illustrative posts from Mercy Corps about starving cows at the markets and people wandering the desert for weeks looking for food and water. If you're inclined to shed a few bucks for humanitarian aid, head on over to Oxfam or to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies' donation page.

Politics and warfare play a big part in the famine, but as this is a weather blog, here's what is happening in the climate to account for the parched earth.

Seasonal rains began late this year, wrecking crop production. That's partially because of the existence of a strong La Niña in 2010 and 2011. It was one of the fiercest La Niiñas in the past 50 years; in December, NASA oceanographer and climatologist Bill Patzert said the "powerful little lady" was making itself felt across the earth, with droughts in Argentina and floods in Australia and Asia. The climate pattern also spun up the speed of winds over the Indian Ocean, steering moisture away from eastern Africa. Thus the drought in the Horn, and fecund vegetation in Indonesia and Australia.

Then there's the possibility that climate change is playing a malicious role in Africa. Says ABC7 senior meteorologist Bob Ryan, “Ethiopia goes through extended droughts on a regular basis. But there’s mounting evidence that there is a higher probability of extremes in drought and precipitation in a changing climate.”

The behavior of today's climate is fulfilling predictions made by early weather models built as far back as 20 years ago, says Ryan, with greater temperature increases at the poles and rapidly melting sea ice. "Whether you believe the human factor is significant or insignificant, there certainly are more and more indications that the climate is changing," he says. "And in some regions, the climate is undergoing rather rapid changes in terms of long-term atmosphere, weather and ocean environments.”

Could eastern Africa be one of those regions in a downward climate spiral? We don't know yet, but take a peek at this Terra satellite shot of the Horn yesterday. Soil as dry as a bone and vast stretches with nary a cloud in the sky: