Bjørn H. Samset
Among the factors that affect the climate, few are as diverse and challenging to understand as aerosols. Minute particles suspended in the atmosphere, aerosols are emitted through a wide range of natural and industrial processes, and are transported around the globe by winds and weather. Once airborne, they affect the climate both directly, through scattering and absorption of solar radiation, and indirectly, through their impact on cloud properties. Combining all their effects, anthropogenic changes to aerosol concentrations are estimated to have had a climate impact over the industrial era that is second only to CO2. Their atmospheric lifetime of only a few days, however, makes their climate effects substantially different from those of well-mixed greenhouse gases.
Major aerosol types include sea salt, dust, sulfate compounds, and black carbon—or soot—from incomplete combustion. Of these, most scatter incoming sunlight back to space, and thus mainly cool the climate. Black carbon, however, absorbs sunlight, and therefore acts as a heating agent much like a greenhouse gas. Furthermore, aerosols can act as cloud condensation nuclei, causing clouds to become whiter—and thus more reflecting—further cooling the surface. Black carbon is again a special case, acting to change the stability of the atmosphere through local heating of the upper air, and also changing the albedo of the surface when it is deposited on snow and ice, for example.
The wide range of climate interactions that aerosols have, and the fact that their distribution depends on the weather at the time and location of emission, lead to large uncertainties in the scientific assessment of their impact. This in turn leads to uncertainties in our present understanding of the climate sensitivity, because while aerosols have predominantly acted to oppose 20th-century global warming by greenhouse gases, the magnitude of aerosol effects on climate is highly uncertain.
Finally, aerosols are important for large-scale climate events such as major volcanoes, or the threat of nuclear winter. The relative ease with which they can be produced and distributed has led to suggestions for using targeted aerosol emissions to counteract global warming—so-called climate engineering.
The Sahel of Africa has been identified as having the strongest land–atmosphere (L/A) interactions on Earth. The Sahelian L/A interaction studies started in the late 1970s. However, due to controversies surrounding the early studies, in which only a single land parameter was considered in L/A interactions, the credibility of land-surface effects on the Sahel’s climate has long been challenged. Using general circulation models and regional climate models coupled with biogeophysical and dynamic vegetation models as well as applying analyses of satellite-derived data, field measurements, and assimilation data, the effects of land-surface processes on West African monsoon variability, which dominates the Sahel climate system at intraseasonal, seasonal, interannual, and decadal scales, as well as mesoscale, have been extensively investigated to realistically explore the Sahel L/A interaction: its effects and the mechanisms involved.
The Sahel suffered the longest and most severe drought on the planet in the 20th century. The devastating environmental and socioeconomic consequences resulting from drought-induced famines in the Sahel have provided strong motivation for the scientific community and society to understand the causes of the drought and its impact. It was controversial and under debate whether the drought was a natural process, mainly induced by sea-surface temperature variability, or was affected by anthropogenic activities. Diagnostic and modeling studies of the sea-surface temperature have consistently demonstrated it exerts great influence on the Sahel climate system, but sea-surface temperature is unable to explain the full scope of the Sahel climate variability and the later 20th century’s drought. The effect of land-surface processes, especially land-cover and land-use change, on the drought have also been extensively investigated. The results with more realistic land-surface models suggest land processes are a first-order contributor to the Sahel climate and to its drought during the later 1960s to the 1980s, comparable to sea surface temperature effects. The issues that caused controversies in the early studies have been properly addressed in the studies with state-of-the-art models and available data.
The mechanisms through which land processes affect the atmosphere are also elucidated in a number of studies. Land-surface processes not only affect vertical transfer of radiative fluxes and heat fluxes but also affect horizontal advections through their effect on the atmospheric heating rate and moisture flux convergence/divergence as well as horizontal temperature gradients.