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 The integration of gauge data, evidence from historical documents, and information from natural proxies such as tree rings during the late 20th and early 21st centuries, has allowed the nature of precipitation variability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.
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.
Regional models were originally developed to serve weather forecasting and regional process studies. Typical simulations encompass time periods in the order of days or weeks. Thereafter regional models were also used more and more as regional climate models for longer integrations and climate change downscaling. Regional climate modeling or regional dynamic downscaling, which are used interchangeably, developed as its own branch in climate research since the end of the 1990s out of the need to bridge the obvious inconsistencies at the interface of global climate research and climate impact research. The primary aim of regional downscaling is to provide consistent regional climate change scenarios with relevant spatial resolution to serve detailed climate impact assessments.
Similar to global climate modeling, the early attempts at regional climate modeling were based on uncoupled atmospheric models or stand-alone ocean models, an approach that is still maintained as the most common on the regional scale. However, this approach has some fundamental limitations, since regional air-sea interaction remains unresolved and regional feedbacks are neglected. This is crucial when assessing climate change impacts in the coastal zone or the regional marine environment. To overcome these limitations, regional climate modeling is currently in a transition from uncoupled regional models into coupled atmosphere-ocean models, leading to fully integrated earth system models. Coupled ice-ocean-atmosphere models have been developed during the last decade and are currently robust and well established on the regional scale. Their added value has been demonstrated for regional climate modeling in marine regions, and the importance of regional air-sea interaction became obvious. Coupled atmosphere-ice-ocean models, but also coupled physical-biogeochemical modeling approaches are increasingly used for the marine realm. First attempts to couple these two approaches together with land surface models are underway. Physical coupled atmosphere-ocean modeling is also developing further and first model configurations resolving wave effects at the atmosphere-ocean interface are now available. These new developments now open up for improved regional assessment under broad consideration of local feedbacks and interactions between the regional atmosphere, cryosphere, hydrosphere, and biosphere.