Rising temperatures and changing rainfall patterns in South Africa’s national parks

14 March 2016

Air temperatures have increased globally over the past decades, while rainfall changes have been more variable, but are taking place. In South Africa, substantial climate-related impacts are predicted, and protected area management agencies will need to respond actively to impacts. It is critical for management agencies to understand the way in which climate is changing locally to predict impacts and respond appropriately. Here, for the first time, we quantify observable changes in temperature and rainfall in South African national parks over the past five to ten decades. Our results show significant increases in temperatures in most parks, with increases being most rapid in the arid regions of the country. Increases in the frequency of extreme high temperature events were also most pronounced in these regions. These results are consistent with other climate studies conducted in these areas. Similar increases were identified for both minimum and maximum temperatures, though absolute minimum temperatures increased at greater rates than absolute maxima. Overall, rainfall trends were less obvious, but a decrease in rainfall was observed for the southern Cape (in three parks), and an increase was detected in one park. The observed temperature changes over the last 20–50 years have in several instances already reached those predicted for near future scenarios (2035), indicating that change scenarios are conservative. These results provide individual parks with evidence-based direction for managing impacts under current and projected changes in local climate. They also provide the management agency with sub-regional information to tailor policy and impact monitoring. Importantly, our results highlight the critical role that individual weather stations play in informing local land management and the concerns for parks that have no local information on changes in climate.