Study Area, Data collection & Analysis

Temperature and relative humidity trends in the northernmost region of South Africa, 1950–2016

Study Area

This study focused on the northern border region of the Limpopo Province, South Africa (Figure 1). The region is located in the Vhembe District Municipality, where a large portion of its rural population resides. This semi-arid region is located in one of the warmest parts of South Africa where temperatures regularly exceed 40 °C during the warm season.21 Mean daily maximum temperatures during summer also exceed 30 °C, and precipitation averages only ~250 mm p.a., most of which falls during summer.21 Such climatic conditions (particularly high temperatures) regularly cause heat stress, especially in the livestock sector, thereby reducing potential productivity.22 The Limpopo Province is one of the economically and financially poorest provinces in the country, with livelihoods in most rural villages depending on subsistence farming and casual employment. Government grants and remittances from off-site relatives contribute significantly to household incomes. Smallholder farmers produce crops and rear some livestock.

Data collection

Daily temperature (1950–2016) and relative humidity (1980–2016) data for two weather stations (Macuville: data period = 1950–2014; Venetia Mine: data period = 2015–2016) in northernmost Limpopo Province were provided by the South African Weather Service. Temperature and humidity values are variable across any given landscape due to topography, land cover and external climatic inputs (e.g. airflow from surrounding regions). The values we present here are thus in absolute terms, only relevant to the station localities, and for the broader region serve as a more general (relative) indication of conditions, rather than absolute conditions for any given site in the province. Information was collated monthly and seasonally. Traditional seasons in South Africa are divided into summer (December – February), autumn (March – May), winter (June – August), and spring (September – November).4 For ease of analysis, temperature data were further divided into two periods: 1950–1986 and 1980–2016. Data were assessed to identify missing and incorrectly reported or recorded values (e.g. daily minimum temperature greater than the daily maximum temperature). Missing and/or incorrect values were then replaced using temporal interpolation techniques (hierarchical polynomial regression techniques, in particular) as described by Boissonnade et al.23 Missing values were replaced through interpolations between observations over time (temporal interpolation). In addition, change points were identified24 and homogenised using the quantilematching adjustment method25. Using the quantile-matching method, up to 10 years’ of data, before or after a change point, were used to produce reliable adjustments.24,25 For relative humidity, zero drift in sensors was assumed.

Data analyses

Temperature and relative humidity trends were determined using R software packages (lubridate and forecast)26,27 with seasonal and trend decomposition using the locally weighted smoothing (LOESS) (STL) function. LOESS was used in regression analysis for creating a smooth line through a timeplot, thus demonstrating the relationship between variables and forecast trends. Graphs plotted from STL show four components: (1) the original data (i.e. a set of actual values); (2) a seasonal component calculated using LOESS smoothing; (3) the trend (i.e. increasing or decreasing direction in the data); and (4) the remainder representing the residual. The total number, amplitude and intensity of heatwave days were calculated for each year. Threshold values for a heatwave were based on the average maximum temperature of the hottest month of a given year plus 5 °C, as described by Mbokodo et al.28 The totals per year were only for heatwave days, where the maximum temperatures exceeded the threshold for three or more successive days, thus guaranteeing that heatwave events with a shorter duration were also detected. It is worth noting, however, that this heatwave computation ignores extremes associated with cooler months and changes in adaptation-related impacts. Probability density plots, calculated using R software package ggplot229, were tested for significance at the 95% confidence level, and used to establish variability of temperature and relative humidity across the seasons and decades under study. Density plots provide a relative likelihood of these random variables falling within a particular range of values. The heat index (incorporating air temperature and relative humidity) was calculated using weathermetrics30. Maximum daily air temperatures and minimum relative humidity were used to determine the heat index. Weathermetrics’ heat.index creates a numeric vector of heat index values from numeric vectors of air temperature and either relative humidity or dew point temperature. In calculating the heat index in R using the weathermetrics package, the following code was used: heat.index (t = NA, dp = c(), rh = c(), temperature.metric = ‘celsius’, output.metric = celsius), where t is numeric vector of air temperatures; rh is numeric vector of relative humidity (in %); temperature.metric is the character string indicating the temperature metric of air temperature and dew point temperature (possible values are ‘celsius’); and output.metric is the character string indicating the metric into which heat index should be calculated (possible values are ‘celsius’). Weathermetrics calculations for heat index are based on the National Weather Service Hydrometeorological Prediction Center Web Team Heat Index Calculator. 31 Results from weathermetrics were validated by the RClimdex version 1.932 software calculations on warm days (TX90p) and warm spell duration indicator (WSDI). TX90p shows the percentage of days when maximum temperature (TX) is greater than the 90th percentile centred on a 5-day window, while WSDI highlights the annual count of days with at least 6 consecutive days when TX is greater than the 90th percentile.

Article TitleTemperature and relative humidity trends in the northernmost region of South Africa, 1950–2016


The northernmost Limpopo Province is located in one of the warmest regions of South Africa, where the agricultural sector is prone to heat stress. The aim of this study was to explore air temperature and relative humidity trends for the region, which have implications for agricultural adaptation and management (amongst other sectors). In particular, we investigated seasonal, annual and decadal scale air temperature and relative humidity changes for the period 1950–2016. Positive temperature trends were recorded for this period, averaging +0.02 °C/year, with the strongest changes observed in mean maximum summer temperatures (+0.03 °C/year). Interannual temperature variability also increased over time, especially for the period 2010–2016, which presents probability densities of

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