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 The integration of gauge data, evidence from historical documents, and information from natural proxies such as tree rings during the late 20th and early 21st centuries, has allowed the nature of precipitation variability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 reconstruction of climate in Poland in the past millennium, as measured by several kinds of proxy data, is more complete than that of many other regions in Europe and the world. In fact, the methods of climate reconstruction used here are commonly utilized for other regions. Proxy data available for Poland (whether by documentary, biological, or geothermal evidence) mainly allow for reconstructions of three meteorological variables: air temperature, ground-surface temperature, and precipitation. It must be underlined however, that air temperature reconstructions are possible only for certain times of the year. This is particularly characteristic of biological proxies (e.g., tree rings measure January–April temperature, chironomids provide data for August temperature, chrysophyte cysts identify cold seasons, etc.). Potentially, such limitation has no corresponding documentary evidence. In Poland these data are available only for climate reconstructions covering mainly the last 500 years because the number of historical sources pre-1500 is usually too small. Geothermal data allow for reconstruction of mean annual ground surface temperature generally for the last 500 years. Reconstructions of air temperature that cover the entire, or almost the entire, millennium and have high time resolution are only available from biological proxies (tree rings, chironomids, diatoms, etc.).
At present, the best source of information about climate in Poland in the last millennium is still documentary evidence. This evidence defines a Medieval Warm Period (MWP), which was present in the 11th century and probably ended in the 14th or early 15th century. Air temperature in the MWP was probably about 0.5–1.0°C warmer than contemporary conditions on average, and the climate was characterized by the greatest degree of oceanity throughout the entire millennium. A Little Ice Age (LIA) can be also distinguished in Poland’s climate history. Data show that it clearly began around the mid-16th century and probably ended in the second half of the 19th century. In this LIA, winters were 1.5–3.0°C colder than present conditions, while summers tended to be warmer by about 0.5°C. As a result, the continentality of the climate in the LIA was the greatest for the entire millennium. Mean annual air temperature was probably lower than the modern temperature by about 0.9–1.5°C. The average rise of air temperature since the mid-19th century, which is often called the Contemporary Warming Period (CWP), is equal to about 1°C and is in line with the results of reconstructions using geothermal and dendrochronological methods. The reconstruction of precipitation in Poland is much more uncertain than the reconstruction of air temperature. There was probably considerably higher average precipitation in the 12th century (and particularly in the second half of this century), in the first half of the 16th century, and also in the first half of the 18th century. The second half of the 13th century and the first half of the 19th century were drier than average. In other periods, precipitation conditions were close to average, including for the entire CWP period.
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.