The Congo Basin, the world’s second-largest forest has distinct meteorological characteristics, and its ecosystem is controlled by complex interactions between many climatic phenomena that act across scales (Fig. 1). While it receives little attention compared to the Amazon Basin, due to its location, the Congo rainforest also contributes to processes responsible for interhemispheric climatic communications in Africa. At the larger scale, the basin regulates the global tropical circulation by serving as one of the world’s most convectively active regions. Therefore, the Basin offers a unique natural laboratory for climate science explorations and the implications for people and ecosystems. But, why has this green heart of Africa been neglected and what should we do about it?.
Why we know little and what we can do
The in-situ climate observations are limited and what is available may be used cautiously. But, the lack of data is not the only reason limiting our understanding of the basin’s ecosystem. Other factors include the intrinsic complexity of its climatic system, insufficient research funding, political instabilities, and restricted data sharing policies.
There have been several efforts in recent years such as conferences focused on the Congo Basin issues, installing low-cost weather stations in the region, and collaborative field campaigns by NASA and ESA. While these actions have been helpful, their scope has been limited.
One of the biggest hurdles for climate research on the Congo Basin is the concerns that visitors may have with safety and instability in the region. This may be the case for both researchers whose work involves field observations as well as those who are interested in visiting the region for scientific communication and potential collaboration. Officials of Congo Basin countries should make any effort to change that perception and assure safety of the visiting scholars. Such effort would require state-level action and is beyond the capacity of academic institutes. During COVID-19 pandemic, we have made so much progress in efficiently adapting to virtual meetings at various sizes. I believe, this is particularly a unique opportunity for Congo Basin countries to promote virtual seminars, research collaborations, and tutorials. This would be an excellent trust-building step, which can later extend to in-person communications, when needed. Another advantage of this initiative would be eliminating the travel costs.
The states should also relax their data sharing policies, an essential first step for encouraging higher-income countries to expand their research funding for the region. These efforts would result in a win-win scenario. On the one hand, Congo Basin nationals would directly benefit from the research findings and potential trainings resulting from those external funds. On the other hand, the collaborations would lead to a better understanding of Earth system science through, for instance, improvement in global climate modeling systems.
In addition to regional conferences, a platform available to the broader climate community would be needed to present the latest research findings and challenges, exchange future ideas, and strengthen collaborations across the globe. There should be a recurring session on the Congo Basin climate and ecosystem in the American Geophysical Union (AGU), American Meteorological Society (AMS), or European Geosciences Union (EGU) annual meetings.
Changes in the Congo Basin would have impacts on the global hydro-climate system. Therefore, it is essential to take a holistic approach and recognize that conditions in this basin can affect other regions like West Africa, which in turn can modulate the Congo Basin through various feedback loops controlled by climatic features shown in Figure 1. Finally, I call upon the climate community to take immediate actions to fill the knowledge gap about this world natural heritage and help mitigating the growing threats to its ecosystems and biodiversity.