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Heavy rain in East Africa in October and November was made about twice as intense by climate change, according to a new study. 

The region’s short rainy season normally falls at this time of year, meaning heavy rain is not unusual. But the intensity of this year’s weather was influenced both by climate change and by the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD), a natural climate phenomenon that had a roughly equivalent effect, according to the research by 10 scientists at World Weather Attribution, a global climate science project. 

Rain killed at least 300 people in Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia in October and November; it flooded a refugee camp in eastern Kenya, destroyed homes and infrastructure and disrupted transport. Those impacts were exacerbated by the three-year drought that preceded this year’s rainy season, which meant people were already trying to recover after losing crops and livestock. Problems with providing early-warning systems and rapid urbanization also contributed to hardship, the study found. 

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“We know that climate events such as the Indian Ocean Dipole or El Niño can greatly affect the weather in East Africa. But these are natural events which happen every few years,” said Joyce Kimutai, a researcher at the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment at Imperial College London, and lead author of the study. “Climate change, on the other hand, is acting on the weather all the time, making these natural cycles more extreme and unpredictable.”

The World Weather Attribution researchers used historical data and simulations to compare the weather patterns with how they would have looked in a world without climate change. Currently the world is about 1.2C warmer than it was before the industrial revolution. The researchers also assessed the influence of El Niño, another natural climate phenomenon, but could not determine its effects in isolation from the IOD. 

The study comes as negotiators and world leaders gather in Dubai for COP28. Countries that are particularly vulnerable to climate change, because they are low-lying, close to the equator or lacking the resources to adapt, have been among those pushing for a more ambitious deal to phase out fossil fuels, keep warming lower and steer humanity away from the worst climate impacts. But they face opposition from economies that rely on fossil fuels. 

“The limits of what people can adapt to are really not far off in many parts of the world. As long as we are keeping burning fossil fuels, these things will happen again and again and again, and people will not be able and have not the time and the resources to adapt to this,” said Friederike Otto, senior lecturer in climate science at the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment, in a press briefing.

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