Ancient giants reveal the realities of climate change


Climate change has been the subject of much debate in recent years, with arguments raging across the globe about what the real causes behind the changes that we are seeing on our planet are. One thing we are certain of though is that the phenomenon is having serious and unpredictable impacts on the world and on the way that people live. This is evidenced by the fact that some regions on the planet are already experiencing more extreme heat, while others have cooled significantly, and extreme weather patterns that can be attributed to climate change, are affecting people’s livelihoods and food security. Unfortunately, current climate models are not yet robust enough to predict impacts at local and regional levels, but it is abundantly clear that all of us are vulnerable in some way.


Researchers from the University of Pretoria have initiated an international collaborative research project, with the objective of determining the effects of climate change over the whole of southern Africa over the past 1 000 years, using trees to reconstruct rainfall patterns. According to lead researcher, Prof Stephan Woodborne from UP’s Mammal Research Institute (MRI), the study is providing valuable insight into both the natural and anthropogenic effects of climate change.

Baobab trees, which are found predominantly in summer rainfall areas, are excellent study models as they can live for more than 1 000 years. In winter rainfall areas, the study looks at trees such as the yellow wood, while camel thorn trees provide similar information about desert areas.

Core samples from the trees are taken to the MRI’s Isotope Laboratory where isotopic analysis of the samples’ properties and the age of the tree is undertaken to reconstruct rainfall patterns.


The study currently covers a vast geographic area stretching from Angola to Madagascar and the southern Cape. The team hopes to get more postgraduate students on board, but according to Prof Woodborne the data have already revealed that the effects of climate change are real and, more often than not, devastating. Information gained from the different baobab sites confirms the major climate shifts in southern Africa with, for example, the expansion of the Kalahari eastward to areas that were once characteristically summer rainfall areas. The study of the giant baobabs have put an end to the debate on whether climate change is real or not and has confirmed the very serious effects of climate change and greenhouse gases. The team’s results to date have also provided insight into how communities have adapted culturally in response to the significant climate changes that have occurred over the years.

Published by Srinivasu Nadupalli

Copyright © University of Pretoria 2020. All rights reserved.