How Climate Change is Influencing Birth Weight in Africa
In the United States, we know everything about our domestic agriculture thanks to the USDA and agricultural monitoring. But not all countries have the luxury of these programs, which is a challenge for Assistant Professor Kathryn Grace, who studies how varying climates impact poor women and families in Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso, Africa. She uses a combination of climate data, satellite data, on the ground interviews, large-scale surveys, and fieldwork to “Tell as complete of a story about how people live, and the things they deal with, as possible.”
Grace’s most recent research examines how community-level precipitation and temperature variations affect birthweight. Using NASA satellites, Grace can understand what is happening on the ground. She also uses mass survey data and in the field interviews to contextualize the data. So far, Grace has reached two conclusions. First, her data has shown that climate change (increasing temperature and decreasing precipitation) will likely have an impact on birth weight outcomes and possibly cause an increase in low birth weight (LBW) babies. From this she concludes that the impact of climate change on birth weight and LBW babies will depend on where a pregnant woman lives.
So what does this mean? Since widespread warming is consistently predicted by the most recent generation of climate change models, temperature influences may pose the greater overall threat. As temperature increases, precipitation decreases, and food availability is unstable. “If climate change means we’re going to have more sick people in already poor countries, then we need to figure out strategies to protect people,” Grace says. “Because poor countries who have more and more sick people are only going to stay poorer and poorer.”
The results of Grace’s research not only suggest that this means we will likely see an increase in LBW babies, but that this has a chance to reverberate across generations, as LBW females are more likely to give birth to LBW infants. Furthermore, LBW has negative consequences for a person’s short and long-term health and economic development.
Grace has been studying impoverished families since grad school, where she completed her PhD on deforestation and family size in Guatemala. The data she acquired in these areas may help determine if certain populations are more or less vulnerable to unexpected weather changes, allowing scientists to develop strategies to help these communities and account for future climate change.
“I am very committed to these issues,” Grace says. “I have kids and so I feel like I need to do whatever I can to use my skills and background to help science address these important issues.”