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 The integration of gauge data, evidence from historical documents, and information from natural proxies such as tree rings during the late 20th and early 21st centuries, has allowed the nature of precipitation variability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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.