Climate data sets, which one to select?

Author: Paulo van Breugel
Updated on: 2017-04-28


For species or vegetation modelling, one of the first choices to make is the selection of explanatory variables, which in most cases will include climatic or bioclimatic data sets. One of the most widely used global climate data sets in biogeographic and ecological research is from Worldclim (Hijmans et al., 2005). Alternative global rainfall data sets are from TAMSAT TARCAT (Maidment et al., 2014) and CHIRPS (Funk et al., 2014). The Worldclim data layers are based on an interpolation of average monthly climate data from weather stations. The other two data sets combine weather station data with satellite observations to improve accuracy where in situ rainfall measurements are sparse. All three data sets are available from the KITE resources website as part of the Africlim dataset (Platts et al. 2015).

Three data sets, three climate patterns

Uncertainty in data sets based interpolation of weather station data can be high, especially in mountainous and poorly sampled areas (Hijmans, et al., 2005). This is certainly an issue in eastern Africa, which is a topographically diverse region with a relative poor coverage of weather stations. On the other hand, rainfall estimates based on satellite imagery have issues as well. I am not a climatologists and I don’t find it easy to determine which data set I should use. But I can of course start by comparing the data sets. Below, I compare the long-term average annual rainfall data from Worldclim (left), Tamsat (middle) and Chirps (right). Note that the Worldclim data set is representative for the time period 1950-2000, while the other two data sets are based on data from 1983-2012.

The images above show the mean annual rainfall. It is immediately evident that the average rainfall distribution as estimated by the TAMSAT data set deviates considerably from the other two estimates. Especially the low rainfall estimates for three of the so-called water towers of Kenya (Mount Kenya, Aberdare Range and the Mau Forest range; see here for GIS data layers) and Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania raise question marks.

Scatterplots to compare rainfall estimates

In GRASS GIS it is easy to quickly compare two maps using the bivariate scatterplot tool in the Map display toolbar. Just select two raster layers and select the tool. You can further tweak the graph using the plot and text settings, and export it as png image or print it. Note that if you print it to file, you’ll get a PS (postscript) file, which you can further edit in e.g., Inkscape. In the example below, I am comparing the rainfall estimates of the three data sets.

Open the bivariate scatterplot

Plot options for the bivariate scatterplot

Text options for the bivariate scatterplot

You can quickly view the regression statistics for two rasters using the Sigma button on the toolbar of the bivariate scatterplot tool

Below you see the scatterplots of rainfall estimates by Worldclim versus TAMSAT, Worldclim versus CHIRPS and TAMSAT versus CHIRPS (click on images to enlarge). They illustrate that there are large discrepancies in the estimated mean annual rainfall, with a R2 are between 0.73 and 0.8.

Worldclim versus CHIRPS mean annual rainfall estimates (R = 0.90, R2 = 0.81)

TAMSAT versus CHIRPS mean annual rainfall estimates (R = 0.85, R2 = 0.73)

TAMSAT (ts) versus the Worldclim (wc) mean annual rainfall estimates (R = 0.86, R2 = 0.74)

Profile plots to compare data sets along transects

Another convenient tool, available from the toolbar in the Map display toolbar, is the profile analysis tool. With this tool you can display the values of one or more raster layers along a line which you can draw on the map canvas. This is particularly handy to see how two or more maps differ.

Open the profile surface tool from the map display toolbar

The profile analysis tool – start drawing a transect on the map

Draw a transect on the map, and a profile with the values of one or more selected raster layers along that transect are displayed in a profile graph.

Below you can see the rainfall values along a transect I drew across the Kenyan highlands. The peaks in the graph are where the transect crosses Mount Kenya, the Aberdares and the Mau forest complex. The blue, red and green lines give the values of respectively the Worldclim, TAMSAT and CHIRPS dataset. The rainfall profile of TAMSAT suggests there is not much differences in annual rainfall between the mountain tops and the lowlands in between. The Worldclim and CHIRPS profiles are more alike, but with the Worldclim providing considerably higher estimates for the mountain peaks then CHIRPS.

Mean annual rainfall values along a transect across the Kenyan highlands

It would be good to find out more about the differences between the Worldclim and CHIRPS estimates. For example, are these differences all due to data errors (in one or both data layers) or was the period 1983 – 2012 in fact drier than the 1950 – 2000 period? But that is a question I might get into later. For now it seems clear, to me at least, that the TAMSAT data has some issues, especially for the Kenyan highlands, suggesting it to be unsuitable for use in ecological or biogeographic studies in east Africa.


  • Funk, Chris, Pete Peterson, Martin Landsfeld, Diego Pedreros, James Verdin, Shraddhanand Shukla, Gregory Husak, James Rowland, Laura Harrison, Andrew Hoell & Joel Michaelsen. The climate hazards infrared precipitation with stations—a new environmental record for monitoring extremes. Scientific Data 2, 150066.
  • Hijmans, R.J., S.E. Cameron, J.L. Parra, P.G. Jones and A. Jarvis, 2005. Very high resolution interpolated climate surfaces for global land areas. International Journal of Climatology 25: 1965-1978.
  • Maidment, R., D. Grimes, R.P.Allan, E. Tarnavsky, M. Stringer, T. Hewison, R. Roebeling and E. Black (2014) The 30 year TAMSAT African Rainfall Climatology And Time series (TARCAT) data set. Journal of Geophysical Research 119 (18), 10,619–10,644.
  • Platts PJ, Omeny PA, Marchant R (2015). AFRICLIM: high-resolution climate projections for ecological applications in Africa. African Journal of Ecology 53, 103-108.


Software: @grassgis
Tools: @scatterplot @profileplot
Subject: @climate_data @Worldclim @TAMSAT @CHIRPS