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.
The East African Rift System (EARS) transecting the high-elevation East African plateau is one of the most outstanding rift systems on earth. Rifting was caused by a huge uprising mantle plume under East Africa. Two distinct rift branches are distinguished: an older, volcanically very active Eastern Branch and a younger, much less volcanic Western Branch. The Eastern Branch is generally characterized by high elevation, whereas the Western Branch comprises a number of deep rift lakes (e.g., Lake Tanganyika, Lake Malaŵi). These differences reflect different plate strengths, the latter of which are largely governed by differences in how the mantle plume interacted with the East African lithosphere. Much of the topography forming the East African plateau has been caused by the uprising mantle plume. The onset of topographic uplift in the EARS is poorly dated but preceded graben development, the latter of which commenced at ~24 Ma in the Ethiopian Rift, at ~12 Ma in Kenya, and at ~10 Ma in the Western Branch. Increased uplift of the East African plateau since ~15–10 Ma might be connected to climate change in East Africa and human evolution. East Africa experienced cooling starting at 15.5–12.5 Ma that heralded profound faunal changes at 8–5 Ma, when the hominin lineage split from the chimpanzee lineage. The Pliocene is characterized by warm and wet climate between 5.3 and 3.3 Ma transitioning into a period of cooler and more arid conditions after ~3 Ma. The climate in the EARS is controlled by westerly monsoonal flow over equatorial West Africa and easterly monsoonal flow over the Indian Ocean. The uplifting East African plateau intercepted those winds and contributed to the increased aridification of East Africa.
Eastern Africa, classically presented as a major dry climate anomaly region in the otherwise wet equatorial belt, is a transition zone between the monsoon domains of West Africa and the Indian Ocean. Its complex terrain, unequaled in the rest of Africa, results in a huge diversity of climatic conditions that steer a wide range of vegetation landscapes, biodiversity and human occupations. Meridional rainfall gradients dominate in the west along the Nile valley and its surroundings, where a single boreal summer peak is mostly observed. Bimodal regimes (generally peaking in April and November) prevail in the east, gradually shifting to a single austral summer peak to the south. The swift seasonal shift of the Intertropical Convergence Zone and its replacement in January–February and June–September by strong meridional, generally diverging low-level winds (e.g., the Somali Jet), account for the low rainfall. These large-scale flows interact with topography and lakes, which have their own local circulation in the form of mountain and lake breezes. This results in complex rainfall patterns, with a strong diurnal component, and a frequent asymmetry in the rainfall distribution with respect to the major relief features. Whereas highly organized rain-producing systems are uncommon, convection is partly modulated at intra-seasonal (about 30–60-day) timescales. Interannual variability shows a fair level of spatial coherence in the region, at least in July–September in the west (Ethiopia and Nile Valley) and October–December in the east along the Indian Ocean. This is associated with a strong forcing from sea-surface temperatures in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and to a lesser extent the Atlantic Ocean. As a result, Eastern Africa shows some of the largest interannual rainfall variations in the world. Some decadal-scale variations are also found, including a drying trend of the March–May rainy season since the 1980s in the eastern part of the region. Eastern Africa overall mean temperature increased by 0.7 to 1 °C from 1973 to 2013, depending on the season. The strong, sometimes non-linear altitudinal gradients of temperature and moisture regimes, also contribute to the climate diversity of Eastern Africa.
Kerry H. Cook
Accurate projections of climate change under increasing atmospheric greenhouse gas levels are needed to evaluate the environmental cost of anthropogenic emissions, and to guide mitigation efforts. These projections are nowhere more important than Africa, with its high dependence on rain-fed agriculture and, in many regions, limited resources for adaptation. Climate models provide our best method for climate prediction but there are uncertainties in projections, especially on regional space scale. In Africa, limitations of observational networks add to this uncertainty since a crucial step in improving model projections is comparisons with observations. Exceeding uncertainties associated with climate model simulation are uncertainties due to projections of future emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. Humanity’s choices in emissions pathways will have profound effects on climate, especially after the mid-century.
The African Sahel is a transition zone characterized by strong meridional precipitation and temperature gradients. Over West Africa, the Sahel marks the northernmost extent of the West African monsoon system. The region’s climate is known to be sensitive to sea surface temperatures, both regional and global, as well as to land surface conditions. Increasing atmospheric greenhouse gases are already causing amplified warming over the Sahara Desert and, consequently, increased rainfall in parts of the Sahel. Climate model projections indicate that much of this increased rainfall will be delivered in the form of more intense storm systems.
The complicated and highly regional precipitation regimes of East Africa present a challenge for climate modeling. Within roughly 5º of latitude of the equator, rainfall is delivered in two seasons—the long rains in the spring, and the short rains in the fall. Regional climate model projections suggest that the long rains will weaken under greenhouse gas forcing, and the short rains season will extend farther into the winter months. Observations indicate that the long rains are already weakening.
Changes in seasonal rainfall over parts of subtropical southern Africa are observed, with repercussions and challenges for agriculture and water availability. Some elements of these observed changes are captured in model simulations of greenhouse gas-induced climate change, especially an early demise of the rainy season. The projected changes are quite regional, however, and more high-resolution study is needed. In addition, there has been very limited study of climate change in the Congo Basin and across northern Africa. Continued efforts to understand and predict climate using higher-resolution simulation must be sustained to better understand observed and projected changes in the physical processes that support African precipitation systems as well as the teleconnections that communicate remote forcings into the continent.
Pastoralists around the world are exposed to climate change and increasing climate variability. Various downscaled regional climate models in Africa support community reports of rising temperatures as well as changes in the seasonality of rainfall and drought. In addition to climate, pastoralists have faced a second exposure to unsupportive policy environments. Dating back to the colonial period, a lack of knowledge about pastoralism and a systemic marginalization of pastoral communities influenced the size and nature of government investments in pastoral lands. National governments prioritized farming communities and failed to pay adequate attention to drylands and pastoral communities. The limited government interventions that occurred were often inconsistent with contemporary realities of pastoralism and pastoral communities. These included attempts at sedentarization and modernization, and in other ways changing the priorities and practices of pastoral communities.
The survival of pastoral communities in Africa in the context of this double exposure has been a focus for scholars, development practitioners, as well as national governments in recent years. Scholars initially drew attention to pastoralists’ drought-coping strategies, and later examined the multiple ways in which pastoralists manage risk and exploit unpredictability. It has been learned that pastoralists are rational land managers whose experience with variable climate has equipped them with the skills needed for adaptation. Pastoralists follow several identifiable adaptation paths, including diversification and modification of their herds and herding strategies; adoption of livelihood activities that did not previously play a permanent role; and a conscious decision to train the next generation for nonpastoral livelihoods. Ongoing government interventions around climate change still prioritize cropping over herding. Sometimes, such nationally supported adaptation plans can undermine community-based adaptation practices, autonomously evolving within pastoral communities. Successful adaptation hinges on recognition of the value of autonomous adaptation and careful integration of such adaptation with national plans.
Climatic Changes and Cultural Responses During the African Humid Period Recorded in Multi-Proxy Data
David McGee and Peter B. deMenocal
The expansion and intensification of summer monsoon precipitation in North and East Africa during the African Humid Period (AHP; c. 15,000–5,000 years before present) is recorded by a wide range of natural archives, including lake and marine sediments, animal and plant remains, and human archaeological remnants. Collectively this diverse proxy evidence provides a detailed portrait of environmental changes during the AHP, illuminating the mechanisms, temporal and spatial evolution, and cultural impacts of this remarkable period of monsoon expansion across the vast expanse of North and East Africa.
The AHP corresponds to a period of high local summer insolation due to orbital precession that peaked at ~11–10 ka, and it is the most recent of many such precessionally paced pluvial periods over the last several million years. Low-latitude sites in the North African tropics and Sahel record an intensification of summer monsoon precipitation at ~15 ka, associated with both rising summer insolation and an abrupt warming of the high northern latitudes at this time. Following a weakening of monsoon strength during the Younger Dryas cold period (12.9–11.7 ka), proxy data point to peak intensification of the West African monsoon between 10–8 ka. These data document lake and wetland expansions throughout almost all of North Africa, expansion of grasslands, shrubs and even some tropical trees throughout much of the Sahara, increases in Nile and Niger River runoff, and proliferation of human settlements across the modern Sahara. The AHP was also marked by a pronounced reduction in windblown mineral dust emissions from the Sahara.
Proxy data suggest a time-transgressive end of the AHP, as sites in the northern and eastern Sahara become arid after 8–7 ka, while sites closer to the equator became arid later, between 5–3 ka. Locally abrupt drops in precipitation or monsoon strength appear to have been superimposed on this gradual, insolation-paced decline, with several sites to the north and east of the modern arid/semi-arid boundary showing evidence of century-scale shifts to drier conditions around 5 ka. This abrupt drying appears synchronous with rapid depopulation of the North African interior and an increase in settlement along the Nile River, suggesting a relationship between the end of the AHP and the establishment of proto-pharaonic culture.
Proxy data from the AHP provide an important testing ground for model simulations of mid-Holocene climate. Comparisons with proxy-based precipitation estimates have long indicated that mid-Holocene simulations by general circulation models substantially underestimate the documented expansion of the West African monsoon during the AHP. Proxy data point to potential feedbacks that may have played key roles in amplifying monsoon expansion during the AHP, including changes in vegetation cover, lake surface area, and mineral dust loading.
This article also highlights key areas for future research. Among these are the role of land surface and mineral aerosol changes in amplifying West African monsoon variability; the nature and drivers of monsoon variability during the AHP; the response of human populations to the end of the AHP; and understanding locally abrupt drying at the end of the AHP.
Southern Africa extends from the equator to about 34°S and is essentially a narrow, peninsular land mass bordered to its south, west, and east by oceans. Its termination in the mid-ocean subtropics has important consequences for regional climate, since it allows the strongest western boundary current in the world ocean (warm Agulhas Current) to be in close proximity to an intense eastern boundary upwelling current (cold Benguela Current). Unlike other western boundary currents, the Agulhas retroflects south of the land mass and flows back into the South Indian Ocean, thereby leading to a large area of anomalously warm water south of South Africa which may influence storm development over the southern part of the land mass. Two other unique regional ocean features imprint on the climate of southern Africa—the Angola-Benguela Frontal Zone (ABFZ) and the Seychelles-Chagos thermocline ridge (SCTR). The former is important for the development of Benguela Niños and flood events over southwestern Africa, while the SCTR influences Madden-Julian Oscillation and tropical cyclone activity in the western Indian Ocean. In addition to South Atlantic and South Indian Ocean influences, there are climatic implications of the neighboring Southern Ocean.
Along with Benguela Niños, the southern African climate is strongly impacted by ENSO and to lesser extent by the Southern Annular Mode (SAM) and sea-surface temperature (SST) dipole events in the Indian and South Atlantic Oceans. The regional land–sea distribution leads to a highly variable climate on a range of scales that is still not well understood due to its complexity and its sensitivity to a number of different drivers. Strong and variable gradients in surface characteristics exist not only in the neighboring oceans but also in several aspects of the land mass, and these all influence the regional climate and its interactions with climate modes of variability.
Much of the interior of southern Africa consists of a plateau 1 to 1.5 km high and a narrow coastal belt that is particularly mountainous in South Africa, leading to sharp topographic gradients. The topography is able to influence the track and development of many weather systems, leading to marked gradients in rainfall and vegetation across southern Africa.
The presence of the large island of Madagascar, itself a region of strong topographic and rainfall gradients, has consequences for the climate of the mainland by reducing the impact of the moist trade winds on the Mozambique coast and the likelihood of tropical cyclone landfall there. It is also likely that at least some of the relativity aridity of the Limpopo region in northern South Africa/southern Zimbabwe results from the location of Madagascar in the southwestern Indian Ocean.
While leading to challenges in understanding its climate variability and change, the complex geography of southern Africa offers a very useful test bed for improving the global models used in many institutions for climate prediction. Thus, research into the relative shortcomings of the models in the southern African region may lead not only to better understanding of southern African climate but also to enhanced capability to predict climate globally.
Rasmus Fensholt, Cheikh Mbow, Martin Brandt, and Kjeld Rasmussen
In the past 50 years, human activities and climatic variability have caused major environmental changes in the semi-arid Sahelian zone and desertification/degradation of arable lands is of major concern for livelihoods and food security. In the wake of the Sahel droughts in the early 1970s and 1980s, the UN focused on the problem of desertification by organizing the UN Conference on Desertification (UNCOD) in Nairobi in 1976. This fuelled a significant increase in the often alarmist popular accounts of desertification as well as scientific efforts in providing an understanding of the mechanisms involved. The global interest in the subject led to the nomination of desertification as focal point for one of three international environmental conventions: the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), emerging from the Rio conference in 1992. This implied that substantial efforts were made to quantify the extent of desertification and to understand its causes. Desertification is a complex and multi-faceted phenomenon aggravating poverty that can be seen as both a cause and a consequence of land resource depletion. As reflected in its definition adopted by the UNCCD, desertification is “land degradation in arid, semi-arid[,] and dry sub-humid areas resulting from various factors, including climate variation and human activities” (UN, 1992). While desertification was seen as a phenomenon of relevance to drylands globally, the Sahel-Sudan region remained a region of specific interest and a significant amount of scientific efforts have been invested to provide an empirically supported understanding of both climatic and anthropogenic factors involved. Despite decades of intensive research on human–environmental systems in the Sahel, there is no overall consensus about the severity of desertification and the scientific literature is characterized by a range of conflicting observations and interpretations of the environmental conditions in the region. Earth Observation (EO) studies generally show a positive trend in rainfall and vegetation greenness over the last decades for the majority of the Sahel and this has been interpreted as an increase in biomass and contradicts narratives of a vicious cycle of widespread degradation caused by human overuse and climate change. Even though an increase in vegetation greenness, as observed from EO data, can be confirmed by ground observations, long-term assessments of biodiversity at finer spatial scales highlight a negative trend in species diversity in several studies and overall it remains unclear if the observed positive trends provide an environmental improvement with positive effects on people’s livelihood.
For several decades, the Sahelian countries have been facing continuing rainfall shortages, which, coupled with anthropogenic factors, have severely disrupted the great ecological balance, leading the area in an inexorable process of desertification and land degradation. The Sahel faces a persistent problem of climate change with high rainfall variability and frequent droughts, and this is one of the major drivers of population’s vulnerability in the region. Communities struggle against severe land degradation processes and live in an unprecedented loss of productivity that hampers their livelihoods and puts them among the populations in the world that are the most vulnerable to climatic change. In response to severe land degradation, 11 countries of the Sahel agreed to work together to address the policy, investment, and institutional barriers to establishing a land-restoration program that addresses climate change and land degradation. The program is called the Pan-Africa Initiative for the Great Green Wall (GGW). The initiative aims at helping to halt desertification and land degradation in the Sahelian zone, improving the lives and livelihoods of smallholder farmers and pastoralists in the area and helping its populations to develop effective adaptation strategies and responses through the use of tree-based development programs. To make the GGW initiative successful, member countries have established a coordinated and integrated effort from the government level to local scales and engaged with many stakeholders. Planning, decision-making, and actions on the ground is guided by participation and engagement, informed by policy-relevant knowledge to address the set of scalable land-restoration practices, and address drivers of land use change in various human-environmental contexts. In many countries, activities specific to achieving the GGW objectives have been initiated in the last five years.
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.