Sharon E. Nicholson
Classic paradigms describing meteorological phenomena and climate have changed dramatically over the last half-century. This is particularly true for the continent of Africa. Our understanding of its climate is today very different from that which prevailed as recently as the 1960s or 1970s. This article traces the development of relevant paradigms in five broad areas: climate and climate classification, tropical atmospheric circulation, tropical rain-bearing systems, climatic variability and change, and land surface processes and climate. One example is the definition of climate. Originally viewed as simple statistical averages, it is now recognized as an environmental variable with global linkages, multiple timescales of variability, and strong controls via earth surface processes. As a result of numerous field experiments, our understanding of tropical rainfall has morphed from the belief in the domination by local thunderstorms to recognition of vast systems on regional to global scales. Our understanding of the interrelationships with land surface processes has also changed markedly. The simple Charney hypothesis concerning albedo change and the related concept of desertification have given way to a broader view of land–atmosphere interaction. In summary, there has been a major evolution in the way we understand climate, climatic variability, tropical rainfall regimes and rain-bearing systems, and potential human impacts on African climate. Each of these areas has evolved in complexity and understanding, a result of an explosive growth in research and the availability of such investigative tools as satellites, computers, and numerical models.
Charles A. Doswell III
Convective storms are the result of a disequilibrium created by solar heating in the presence of abundant low-level moisture, resulting in the development of buoyancy in ascending air. Buoyancy typically is measured by the Convective Available Potential Energy (CAPE) associated with air parcels. When CAPE is present in an environment with strong vertical wind shear (winds changing speed and/or direction with height), convective storms become increasingly organized and more likely to produce hazardous weather: strong winds, large hail, heavy precipitation, and tornadoes.
Because of their associated hazards and their impact on society, in some nations (notably, the United States), there arose a need to have forecasts of convective storms. Pre-20th-century efforts to forecast the weather were hampered by a lack of timely weather observations and by the mathematical impossibility of direct solution of the equations governing the weather. The first severe convective storm forecaster was J. P. Finley, who was an Army officer, and he was ordered to cease his efforts at forecasting in 1887. Some Europeans like Alfred Wegener studied tornadoes as a research topic, but there was no effort to develop convective storm forecasting.
World War II aircraft observations led to the recognition of limited storm science in the topic of convective storms, leading to a research program called the Thunderstorm Product that concentrated diverse observing systems to learn more about the structure and evolution of convective storms. Two Air Force officers, E. J. Fawbush and R. C. Miller, issued the first tornado forecasts in the modern era, and by 1953 the U.S. Weather Bureau formed a Severe Local Storms forecasting unit (SELS, now designated the Storm Prediction Center of the National Weather Service). From the outset of the forecasting efforts, it was evident that more convective storm research was needed. SELS had an affiliated research unit called the National Severe Storms Project, which became the National Severe Storms Laboratory in 1963. Thus, research and operational forecasting have been partners from the outset of the forecasting efforts in the United States—with major scientific contributions from the late T. T. Fujita (originally from Japan), K. A. Browning (from the United Kingdom), R. A. Maddox, J. M. Fritsch, C. F. Chappell, J. B. Klemp, L. R. Lemon, R. B. Wilhelmson, R. Rotunno, M. Weisman, and numerous others. This has resulted in the growth of considerable scientific understanding about convective storms, feeding back into the improvement in convective storm forecasting since it began in the modern era. In Europe, interest in both convective storm forecasting and research has produced a European Severe Storms Laboratory and an experimental severe convective storm forecasting group.
The development of computers in World War II created the ability to make numerical simulations of convective storms and numerical weather forecast models. These have been major elements in the growth of both understanding and forecast accuracy. This will continue indefinitely.
Saji N. Hameed
Discovered at the very end of the 20th century, the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) is a mode of natural climate variability that arises out of coupled ocean–atmosphere interaction in the Indian Ocean. It is associated with some of the largest changes of ocean–atmosphere state over the equatorial Indian Ocean on interannual time scales. IOD variability is prominent during the boreal summer and fall seasons, with its maximum intensity developing at the end of the boreal-fall season. Between the peaks of its negative and positive phases, IOD manifests a markedly zonal see-saw in anomalous sea surface temperature (SST) and rainfall—leading, in its positive phase, to a pronounced cooling of the eastern equatorial Indian Ocean, and a moderate warming of the western and central equatorial Indian Ocean; this is accompanied by deficit rainfall over the eastern Indian Ocean and surplus rainfall over the western Indian Ocean. Changes in midtropospheric heating accompanying the rainfall anomalies drive wind anomalies that anomalously lift the thermocline in the equatorial eastern Indian Ocean and anomalously deepen them in the central Indian Ocean. The thermocline anomalies further modulate coastal and open-ocean upwelling, thereby influencing biological productivity and fish catches across the Indian Ocean. The hydrometeorological anomalies that accompany IOD exacerbate forest fires in Indonesia and Australia and bring floods and infectious diseases to equatorial East Africa. The coupled ocean–atmosphere instability that is responsible for generating and sustaining IOD develops on a mean state that is strongly modulated by the seasonal cycle of the Austral-Asian monsoon; this setting gives the IOD its unique character and dynamics, including a strong phase-lock to the seasonal cycle. While IOD operates independently of the El Niño and Southern Oscillation (ENSO), the proximity between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, and the existence of oceanic and atmospheric pathways, facilitate mutual interactions between these tropical climate modes.
Timothy M. Shanahan
West Africa is among the most populated regions of the world, and it is predicted to continue to have one of the fastest growing populations in the first half of the 21st century. More than 35% of its GDP comes from agricultural production, and a large fraction of the population faces chronic hunger and malnutrition. Its dependence on rainfed agriculture is compounded by extreme variations in rainfall, including both droughts and floods, which appear to have become more frequent. As a result, it is considered a region highly vulnerable to future climate changes. At the same time, CMIP5 model projections for the next century show a large spread in precipitation estimates for West Africa, making it impossible to predict even the direction of future precipitation changes for this region. To improve predictions of future changes in the climate of West Africa, a better understanding of past changes, and their causes, is needed. Long climate and vegetation reconstructions, extending back to 5−8 Ma, demonstrate that changes in the climate of West Africa are paced by variations in the Earth’s orbit, and point to a direct influence of changes in low-latitude seasonal insolation on monsoon strength. However, the controls on West African precipitation reflect the influence of a complex set of forcing mechanisms, which can differ regionally in their importance, especially when insolation forcing is weak. During glacial intervals, when insolation changes are muted, millennial-scale dry events occur across North Africa in response to reorganizations of the Atlantic circulation associated with high-latitude climate changes. On centennial timescales, a similar response is evident, with cold conditions during the Little Ice Age associated with a weaker monsoon, and warm conditions during the Medieval Climate Anomaly associated with wetter conditions. Land surface properties play an important role in enhancing changes in the monsoon through positive feedback. In some cases, such as the mid-Holocene, the feedback led to abrupt changes in the monsoon, but the response is complex and spatially heterogeneous. Despite advances made in recent years, our understanding of West African monsoon variability remains limited by the dearth of continuous, high- resolution, and quantitative proxy reconstructions, particularly from terrestrial sites.
International climate negotiations seek to limit warming to an average of two degrees Celsius (2°C). This objective is justified by the claim that scientists have identified two degrees of warming as the point at which climate change becomes dangerous. Climate scientists themselves maintain that while science can provide projections of possible impacts at different levels of warming, determining what constitutes an acceptable level of risk is not a matter to be decided by science alone, but is a value choice to be deliberated upon by societies as a whole. Hence, while climate science can inform debates about how much warming is too much, it cannot provide a definitive answer to that question. In order to fully understand how climate change came to be defined as a phenomenon with a single global dangerous limit of 2°C, it is necessary to incorporate insights from the social sciences.
Political economy, culture, economics, sociology, geography, and social psychology have all played a role in defining what constitutes an acceptable level of climate risk. These perspectives can be applied through the framework of institutional analysis to examine reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and other international organizations. This interdisciplinary approach offers the potential to provide a comprehensive history of how climate science has been interpreted in policy making. An interdisciplinary analysis is also essential in order to move beyond historical description to provide a narrative of considerable explanatory power. Such insights offer a valuable framework for considering current debates about whether or not it will be possible to limit warming to 2°C.