An orbitally induced increase in summer insolation during the last glacial-interglacial transition enhanced the thermal contrast between land and sea, with land masses heating up compared to the adjacent ocean surface. In North Africa, warmer land surfaces created a low-pressure zone, driving the northward penetration of monsoonal rains originating from the Atlantic Ocean. As a consequence, regions today among the driest of the world were covered by permanent and deep freshwater lakes, some of them being exceptionally large, such as the “Mega” Lake Chad, which covered some 400 000 square kilometers. A dense network of rivers developed.
What were the consequences of this climate change on plant distribution and biodiversity? Pollen grains that accumulated over time in lake sediments are useful tools to reconstruct past vegetation assemblages since they are extremely resistant to decay and are produced in great quantities. In addition, their morphological character allows the determination of most plant families and genera.
In response to the postglacial humidity increase, tropical taxa that survived as strongly reduced populations during the last glacial period spread widely, shifting latitudes or elevations, expanding population size, or both. In the Saharan desert, pollen of tropical trees (e.g., Celtis) were found in sites located at up to 25°N in southern Libya. In the Equatorial mountains, trees (e.g., Olea and Podocarpus) migrated to higher elevations to form the present-day Afro-montane forests. Patterns of migration were individualistic, with the entire range of some taxa displaced to higher latitudes or shifted from one elevation belt to another. New combinations of climate/environmental conditions allowed the cooccurrences of taxa growing today in separate regions. Such migrational processes and species-overlapping ranges led to a tremendous increase in biodiversity, particularly in the Saharan desert, where more humid-adapted taxa expanded along water courses, lakes, and wetlands, whereas xerophytic populations persisted in drier areas.
At the end of the Holocene era, some 2,500 to 4,500 years ago, the majority of sites in tropical Africa recorded a shift to drier conditions, with many lakes and wetlands drying out. The vegetation response to this shift was the overall disruption of the forests and the wide expansion of open landscapes (wooded grasslands, grasslands, and steppes). This environmental crisis created favorable conditions for further plant exploitation and cereal cultivation in the Congo Basin.
A. Johannes Dolman, Luis U. Vilasa-Abad, and Thomas A. J. Janssen
Drylands cover around 40% of the land surface on Earth and are inhabited by more than 2 billion people, who are directly dependent on these lands. Drylands are characterized by a highly variable rainfall regime and inherent vegetation-climate feedbacks that can enhance the resilience of the system, but also can amplify disturbances. In that way, the system may get locked into two alternate stable states: one relatively wet and vegetated, and the other dry and barren. The resilience of dryland ecosystems derives from a number of adaptive mechanisms by which the vegetation copes with prolonged water stress, such as hydraulic redistribution. The stochastic nature of both the vegetation dynamics and the rainfall regime is a key characteristic of these systems and affects its management in relation to the feedbacks. How the ecohydrology of the African drylands will change in the future depends on further changes in climate, human disturbances, land use, and the socioeconomic system.
In equatorial East Africa, glaciers still exist on Mount Kenya, Kilimanjaro, and Ruwenzori. The decreasing ice extent has been documented by field reports since the end of the 19th century and a series of mappings. For Mount Kenya, the mappings are of 1947, 1963, 1987, 1993, and 2004, with more detailed mappings of Lewis Glacier in 1934, 1958, 1963, 1974, 1978, 1982, 1985, 1986, 1990, and 1993. For Kilimanjaro, the sequence is 1912, 1953, 1976, 1989, and 2000. For Ruwenzori (for which information is more scarce), the information is from 1906, 1955, and 1990. Photographs are valuable complementary evidence. At Lewis Glacier on Mount Kenya, measurements of mass budget and ice flow have been conducted over decades. The climatic forcing of ice recession in East Africa at the onset in the 1880s was radiationally controlled, affecting the most exposed locations. Later warming caused further ice shrinkage, except on the summit plateau of Kilimanjaro, above the freezing level. Whereas the ice recession in the Ecuadorian Andes and New Guinea began in the middle of the 19th century, plausibly caused by warming, the late onset in East Africa should be appreciated in the context of large-scale circulation changes evidenced by the historical ship observations in the equatorial Indian Ocean.
Jonathan Holmes and Philipp Hoelzmann
From the end of the last glacial stage until the mid-Holocene, large areas of arid and semi-arid North Africa were much wetter than present, during the interval that is known as the African Humid Period (AHP). During this time, large areas were characterized by a marked increase in precipitation, an expansion of lakes, river systems, and wetlands, and the spread of grassland, shrub land, and woodland vegetation into areas that are currently much drier. Simulations with climate models indicate that the AHP was the result of orbitally forced increase in northern hemisphere summer insolation, which caused the intensification and northward expansion of the boreal summer monsoon. However, feedbacks from ocean circulation, land-surface cover, and greenhouse gases were probably also important.
Lake basins and their sediment archives have provided important information about climate during the AHP, including the overall increases in precipitation and in rates, trajectories, and spatial variations in change at the beginning and the end of the interval. The general pattern is one of apparently synchronous onset of the AHP at the start of the Bølling-Allerød interstadial around 14,700 years ago, although wet conditions were interrupted by aridity during the Younger Dryas stadial. Wetter conditions returned at the start of the Holocene around 11,700 years ago covering much of North Africa and extended into parts of the southern hemisphere, including southeastern Equatorial Africa. During this time, the expansion of lakes and of grassland or shrub land vegetation over the area that is now the Sahara desert, was especially marked. Increasing aridity through the mid-Holocene, associated with a reduction in northern hemisphere summer insolation, brought about the end of the AHP by around 5000–4000 years before present. The degree to which this end was abrupt or gradual and geographically synchronous or time transgressive, remains open to debate. Taken as a whole, the lake sediment records do not support rapid and synchronous declines in precipitation and vegetation across the whole of North Africa, as some model experiments and other palaeoclimate archives have suggested. Lake sediments from basins that desiccated during the mid-Holocene may have been deflated, thus providing a misleading picture of rapid change. Moreover, different proxies of climate or environment may respond in contrasting ways to the same changes in climate. Despite this, there is evidence of rapid (within a few hundred years) termination to the AHP in some regions, with clear signs of a time-transgressive response both north to south and east to west, pointing to complex controls over the mid-Holocene drying of North Africa.
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.
Xiaodong Liu and Libin Yan
As a unique and high gigantic plateau, the Tibetan Plateau (TP) is sensitive and vulnerable to global climate change, and its climate change tendencies and the corresponding impact on regional ecosystems and water resources can provide an early alarm for global and mid-latitude climate changes. Growing evidence suggests that the TP has experienced more significant warming than its surrounding areas during past decades, especially at elevations higher than 4 km. Greater warming at higher elevations than at lower elevations has been reported in several major mountainous regions on earth, and this interesting phenomenon is known as elevation-dependent climate change, or elevation-dependent warming (EDW).
At the beginning of the 21st century, Chinese scholars first noticed that the TP had experienced significant warming since the mid-1950s, especially in winter, and that the latest warming period in the TP occurred earlier than enhanced global warming since the 1970s. The Chinese also first reported that the warming rates increased with the elevation in the TP and its neighborhood, and the TP was one of the most sensitive areas to global climate change. Later, additional studies, using more and longer observations from meteorological stations and satellites, shed light on the detailed characteristics of EDW in terms of mean, minimum, and maximum temperatures and in different seasons. For example, it was found that the daily minimum temperature showed the most evident EDW in comparison to the mean and daily maximum temperatures, and EDW is more significant in winter than in other seasons. The mean daily minimum and maximum temperatures also maintained increasing trends in the context of EDW. Despite a global warming hiatus since the turn of the 21st century, the TP exhibited persistent warming from 2001 to 2012.
Although EDW has been demonstrated by more and more observations and modeling studies, the underlying mechanisms for EDW are not entirely clear owing to sparse, discontinuous, and insufficient observations of climate change processes. Based on limited observations and model simulations, several factors and their combinations have been proposed to be responsible for EDW, including the snow-albedo feedback, cloud-radiation effects, water vapor and radiative fluxes, and aerosols forcing. At present, however, various explanations of the mechanisms for EDW are mainly derived from model-based research, lacking more solid observational evidence. Therefore, to comprehensively understand the mechanisms of EDW, a more extensive and multiple-perspective climate monitoring system is urgently needed in the areas of the TP with high elevations and complex terrains.
High-elevation climate change may have resulted in a series of environmental consequences, such as vegetation changes, permafrost melting, and glacier shrinkage, in mountainous areas. In particular, the glacial retreat could alter the headwater environments on the TP and the hydrometeorological characteristics of several major rivers in Asia, threatening the water supply for the people living in the adjacent countries. Taking into account the climate-model projections that the warming trend will continue over the TP in the coming decades, this region’s climate change and the relevant environmental consequences should be of great concern to both scientists and the general public.
B.N. Goswami and Soumi Chakravorty
Lifeline for about one-sixth of the world’s population in the subcontinent, the Indian summer monsoon (ISM) is an integral part of the annual cycle of the winds (reversal of winds with seasons), coupled with a strong annual cycle of precipitation (wet summer and dry winter). For over a century, high socioeconomic impacts of ISM rainfall (ISMR) in the region have driven scientists to attempt to predict the year-to-year variations of ISM rainfall. A remarkably stable phenomenon, making its appearance every year without fail, the ISM climate exhibits a rather small year-to-year variation (the standard deviation of the seasonal mean being 10% of the long-term mean), but it has proven to be an extremely challenging system to predict. Even the most skillful, sophisticated models are barely useful with skill significantly below the potential limit on predictability. Understanding what drives the mean ISM climate and its variability on different timescales is, therefore, critical to advancing skills in predicting the monsoon. A conceptual ISM model helps explain what maintains not only the mean ISM but also its variability on interannual and longer timescales.
The annual ISM precipitation cycle can be described as a manifestation of the seasonal migration of the intertropical convergence zone (ITCZ) or the zonally oriented cloud (rain) band characterized by a sudden “onset.” The other important feature of ISM is the deep overturning meridional (regional Hadley circulation) that is associated with it, driven primarily by the latent heat release associated with the ISM (ITCZ) precipitation. The dynamics of the monsoon climate, therefore, is an extension of the dynamics of the ITCZ. The classical land–sea surface temperature gradient model of ISM may explain the seasonal reversal of the surface winds, but it fails to explain the onset and the deep vertical structure of the ISM circulation. While the surface temperature over land cools after the onset, reversing the north–south surface temperature gradient and making it inadequate to sustain the monsoon after onset, it is the tropospheric temperature gradient that becomes positive at the time of onset and remains strongly positive thereafter, maintaining the monsoon. The change in sign of the tropospheric temperature (TT) gradient is dynamically responsible for a symmetric instability, leading to the onset and subsequent northward progression of the ITCZ. The unified ISM model in terms of the TT gradient provides a platform to understand the drivers of ISM variability by identifying processes that affect TT in the north and the south and influence the gradient.
The predictability of the seasonal mean ISM is limited by interactions of the annual cycle and higher frequency monsoon variability within the season. The monsoon intraseasonal oscillation (MISO) has a seminal role in influencing the seasonal mean and its interannual variability. While ISM climate on long timescales (e.g., multimillennium) largely follows the solar forcing, on shorter timescales the ISM variability is governed by the internal dynamics arising from ocean–atmosphere–land interactions, regional as well as remote, together with teleconnections with other climate modes. Also important is the role of anthropogenic forcing, such as the greenhouse gases and aerosols versus the natural multidecadal variability in the context of the recent six-decade long decreasing trend of ISM rainfall.
Benjamin F. Zaitchik
Humans have understood the importance of climate to human health since ancient times. In some cases, the connections appear to be obvious: a flood can cause drownings, a drought can lead to crop failure and hunger, and temperature extremes pose a risk of exposure. In other cases, the connections are veiled by complex or unobserved processes, such that the influence of climate on a disease epidemic or a conflict can be difficult to diagnose. In reality, however, all climate impacts on health are mediated by some combination of natural and human dynamics that cause individuals or populations to be vulnerable to the effects of a variable or changing climate.
Understanding and managing negative health impacts of climate is a global challenge. The challenge is greater in regions with high poverty and weak institutions, however, and Africa is a continent where the health burden of climate is particularly acute. Observed climate variability in the modern era has been associated with widespread food insecurity, significant epidemics of infectious disease, and loss of life and livelihoods to climate extremes. Anthropogenic climate change is a further stress that has the potential to increase malnutrition, alter the distribution of diseases, and bring more frequent hydrological and temperature extremes to many regions across the continent.
Skillful early warning systems and informed climate change adaptation strategies have the potential to enhance resilience to short-term climate variability and to buffer against negative impacts of climate change. But effective warnings and projections require both scientific and institutional capacity to address complex processes that are mediated by physical, ecological, and societal systems. Here the state of understanding climate impacts on health in Africa is summarized through a selective review that focuses on food security, infectious disease, and extreme events. The potential to apply scientific understanding to early warning and climate change projection is also considered.
Water, not temperature, governs life in West Africa, and the region is both temporally and spatially greatly affected by rainfall variability. Recent rainfall anomalies, for example, have greatly reduced crop productivity in the Sahel area. Rainfall indices from recent centuries show that multidecadal droughts reoccur and, furthermore, that interannual rainfall variations are high in West Africa. Current knowledge of historical rainfall patterns is, however, fairly limited. A detailed rainfall chronology of West Africa is currently only available from the beginning of the 19th century. For the 18th century and earlier, the records are still sporadic, and an interannual rainfall chronology has so far only been obtained for parts of the Guinea Coast. Thus, there is a need to extend the rainfall record to fully understand past precipitation changes in West Africa.
The main challenge when investigating historical rainfall variability in West Africa is the scarcity of detailed and continuous data. Readily available meteorological data barely covers the last century, whereas in Europe and the United States for example, the data sometimes extend back two or more centuries. Data availability strongly correlates with the historical development of West Africa. The strong oral traditions that prevailed in the pre-literate societies meant that only some of the region’s history was recorded in writing before the arrival of the Europeans in the 16th century. From the 19th century onwards, there are, therefore, three types of documents available, and they are closely linked to the colonization of West Africa. These are: official records started by the colonial governments continuing to modern day; regular reporting stations started by the colonial powers; and finally, temporary nongovernmental observations of various kinds. For earlier periods, the researcher depends on noninstrumental observations found in letters, reports, or travel journals made by European slave traders, adventurers, and explorers. Spatially, these documents are confined to the coastal areas, as Europeans seldom ventured inland before the mid-1800s. Thus, the inland regions are generally poorly represented. Arabic chronicles from the Sahel provide the only source of information, but as historical documents, they include several spatiotemporal uncertainties. Climate researchers often complement historical data with proxy-data from nature’s own archives. However, the West African environment is restrictive. Reliable proxy-data, such as tree-rings, cannot be exploited effectively. Tropical trees have different growth patterns than trees in temperate regions and do not generate growth rings in the same manner. Sediment cores from Lake Bosumtwi in Ghana have provided, so far, the best centennial overview when it comes to understanding precipitation patterns during recent centuries. These reveal that there have been considerable changes in historical rainfall patterns—West Africa may have been even drier than it is today.
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.