Precipitation levels in southern Africa exhibit a marked east–west gradient and are characterized by strong seasonality and high interannual variability. Much of the mainland south of 15°S exhibits a semiarid to dry subhumid climate. More than 66 percent of rainfall in the extreme southwest of the subcontinent occurs between April and September. Rainfall in this region—termed the winter rainfall zone (WRZ)—is most commonly associated with the passage of midlatitude frontal systems embedded in the austral westerlies. In contrast, more than 66 percent of mean annual precipitation over much of the remainder of the subcontinent falls between October and March. Climates in this summer rainfall zone (SRZ) are dictated by the seasonal interplay between subtropical high-pressure systems and the migration of easterly flows associated with the Intertropical Convergence Zone. Fluctuations in both SRZ and WRZ rainfall are linked to the variability of sea-surface temperatures in the oceans surrounding southern Africa and are modulated by the interplay of large-scale modes of climate variability, including the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO), Southern Indian Ocean Dipole, and Southern Annular Mode.
Ideas about long-term rainfall variability in southern Africa have shifted over time. During the early to mid-19th century, the prevailing narrative was that the climate was progressively desiccating. By the late 19th to early 20th century, when gauged precipitation data became more readily available, debate shifted toward the identification of cyclical rainfall variation. The integration of gauge data, evidence from historical documents, and information from natural proxies such as tree rings during the late 20th and early 21st centuries, has allowed the nature of precipitation variability since ~1800 to be more fully explored.
Drought episodes affecting large areas of the SRZ occurred during the first decade of the 19th century, in the early and late 1820s, late 1850s–mid-1860s, mid-late 1870s, earlymid-1880s, and mid-late 1890s. Of these episodes, the drought during the early 1860s was the most severe of the 19th century, with those of the 1820s and 1890s the most protracted. Many of these droughts correspond with more extreme ENSO warm phases.
Widespread wetter conditions are less easily identified. The year 1816 appears to have been relatively wet across the Kalahari and other areas of south central Africa. Other wetter episodes were centered on the late 1830s–early 1840s, 1855, 1870, and 1890. In the WRZ, drier conditions occurred during the first decade of the 19th century, for much of the mid-late 1830s through to the mid-1840s, during the late 1850s and early 1860s, and in the early-mid-1880s and mid-late 1890s. As for the SRZ, markedly wetter years are less easily identified, although the periods around 1815, the early 1830s, mid-1840s, mid-late 1870s, and early 1890s saw enhanced rainfall. Reconstructed rainfall anomalies for the SRZ suggest that, on average, the region was significantly wetter during the 19th century than the 20th and that there appears to have been a drying trend during the 20th century that has continued into the early 21st. In the WRZ, average annual rainfall levels appear to have been relatively consistent between the 19th and 20th centuries, although rainfall variability increased during the 20th century compared to the 19th.
Martin Claussen, Anne Dallmeyer, and Jürgen Bader
There is ample evidence from palaeobotanic and palaeoclimatic reconstructions that during early and mid-Holocene between some 11,700 years (in some regions, a few thousand years earlier) and some 4200 years ago, subtropical North Africa was much more humid and greener than today. This African Humid Period (AHP) was triggered by changes in the orbital forcing, with the climatic precession as the dominant pacemaker. Climate system modeling in the 1990s revealed that orbital forcing alone cannot explain the large changes in the North African summer monsoon and subsequent ecosystem changes in the Sahara. Feedbacks between atmosphere, land surface, and ocean were shown to strongly amplify monsoon and vegetation changes. Forcing and feedbacks have caused changes far larger in amplitude and extent than experienced today in the Sahara and Sahel. Most, if not all, climate system models, however, tend to underestimate the amplitude of past African monsoon changes and the extent of the land-surface changes in the Sahara. Hence, it seems plausible that some feedback processes are not properly described, or are even missing, in the climate system models.
Perhaps even more challenging than explaining the existence of the AHP and the Green Sahara is the interpretation of data that reveal an abrupt termination of the last AHP. Based on climate system modeling and theoretical considerations in the late 1990s, it was proposed that the AHP could have ended, and the Sahara could have expanded, within just a few centuries—that is, much faster than orbital forcing. In 2000, paleo records of terrestrial dust deposition off Mauritania seemingly corroborated the prediction of an abrupt termination. However, with the uncovering of more paleo data, considerable controversy has arisen over the geological evidence of abrupt climate and ecosystem changes. Some records clearly show abrupt changes in some climate and terrestrial parameters, while others do not. Also, climate system modeling provides an ambiguous picture.
The prediction of abrupt climate and ecosystem changes at the end of the AHP is hampered by limitations implicit in the climate system. Because of the ubiquitous climate variability, it is extremely unlikely that individual paleo records and model simulations completely match. They could do so in a statistical sense, that is, if the statistics of a large ensemble of paleo data and of model simulations converge. Likewise, the interpretation regarding the strength of terrestrial feedback from individual records is elusive. Plant diversity, rarely captured in climate system models, can obliterate any abrupt shift between green and desert state. Hence, the strength of climate—vegetation feedback is probably not a universal property of a certain region but depends on the vegetation composition, which can change with time. Because of spatial heterogeneity of the African landscape and the African monsoon circulation, abrupt changes can occur in several, but not all, regions at different times during the transition from the humid mid-Holocene climate to the present-day more arid climate. Abrupt changes in one region can be induced by abrupt changes in other regions, a process sometimes referred to as “induced tipping.” The African monsoon system seems to be prone to fast and potentially abrupt changes, which to understand and to predict remains one of the grand challenges in African climate science.