Florian Sévellec and Bablu Sinha
The Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC) is a large, basin-scale circulation located in the Atlantic Ocean that transports climatically important quantities of heat northward. It can be described schematically as a northward flow in the warm upper ocean and a southward return flow at depth in much colder water. The heat capacity of a layer of 2 m of seawater is equivalent to that of the entire atmosphere; therefore, ocean heat content dominates Earth’s energy storage. For this reason and because of the AMOC’s typically slow decadal variations, the AMOC regulates North Atlantic climate and contributes to the relatively mild climate of Europe. Hence, predicting AMOC variations is crucial for predicting climate variations in regions bordering the North Atlantic. Similar to weather predictions, climate predictions are based on numerical simulations of the climate system. However, providing accurate predictions on such long timescales is far from straightforward. Even in a perfect model approach, where biases between numerical models and reality are ignored, the chaotic nature of AMOC variability (i.e., high sensitivity to initial conditions) is a significant source of uncertainty, limiting its accurate prediction.
Predictability studies focus on factors determining our ability to predict the AMOC rather than actual predictions. To this end, processes affecting AMOC predictability can be separated into two categories: processes acting as a source of predictability (periodic harmonic oscillations, for instance) and processes acting as a source of uncertainty (small errors that grow and significantly modify the outcome of numerical simulations). To understand the former category, harmonic modes of variability or precursors of AMOC variations are identified. On the other hand, in a perfect model approach, the sources of uncertainty are characterized by the spread of numerical simulations differentiated by the application of small differences to their initial conditions. Two alternative and complementary frameworks have arisen to investigate this spread. The pragmatic framework corresponds to performing an ensemble of simulations, by imposing a randomly chosen small error on the initial conditions of individual simulations. This allows a probabilistic approach and to statistically characterize the importance of the initial condition by evaluating the spread of the ensemble. The theoretical framework uses stability analysis to identify small perturbations to the initial conditions, which are conducive to significant disruption of the AMOC.
Beyond these difficulties in assessing the predictability, decadal prediction systems have been developed and tested through a range of hindcasts. The inherent difficulties of operational forecasts span from developing efficient initialization methods to setting accurate radiative forcing to correcting for model drift and bias, all these improvements being estimated and validated through a range of specifically designed skill metrics.
The strongest Indian summer monsoon (ISM) on the planet features prolonged clustered spells of wet and dry conditions often lasting for two to three weeks, known as active and break monsoons. The active and break monsoons are attributed to a quasi-periodic intraseasonal oscillation (ISO), which is an extremely important form of the ISM variability bridging weather and climate variation. The ISO over India is part of the ISO in global tropics. The latter is one of the most important meteorological phenomena discovered during the 20th century (Madden & Julian, 1971, 1972). The extreme dry and wet events are regulated by the boreal summer ISO (BSISO). The BSISO over Indian monsoon region consists of northward propagating 30–60 day and westward propagating 10–20 day modes. The “clustering” of synoptic activity was separately modulated by both the 30–60 day and 10–20 day BSISO modes in approximately equal amounts. The clustering is particularly strong when the enhancement effect from both modes acts in concert. The northward propagation of BSISO is primarily originated from the easterly vertical shear (increasing easterly winds with height) of the monsoon flows, which by interacting with the BSISO convective system can generate boundary layer convergence to the north of the convective system that promotes its northward movement. The BSISO-ocean interaction through wind-evaporation feedback and cloud-radiation feedback can also contribute to the northward propagation of BSISO from the equator. The 10–20 day oscillation is primarily produced by convectively coupled Rossby waves modified by the monsoon mean flows. Using coupled general circulation models (GCMs) for ISO prediction is an important advance in subseasonal forecasts. The major modes of ISO over Indian monsoon region are potentially predictable up to 40–45 days as estimated by multiple GCM ensemble hindcast experiments. The current dynamical models’ prediction skills for the large initial amplitude cases are approximately 20–25 days, but the prediction of developing BSISO disturbance is much more difficult than the prediction of the mature BSISO disturbances. This article provides a synthesis of our current knowledge on the observed spatial and temporal structure of the ISO over India and the important physical processes through which the BSISO regulates the ISM active-break cycles and severe weather events. Our present capability and shortcomings in simulating and predicting the monsoon ISO and outstanding issues are also discussed.
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.
Wansuo Duan and Mu Mu
This article retrospects the studies of the predictability of El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) events within the framework of error growth dynamics and reviews the results of previous studies. It mainly covers (a) the advances in methods for studying ENSO predictability, especially those of optimal methods associated with initial errors and model errors; and (b) the applications of these optimal methods in the studies of “spring predictability barrier” (SPB), optimal precursors for ENSO events (or the source of ENSO predictability) and target observations for ENSO predictions. In this context, some of major frontiers and challenges remaining in ENSO predictability are addressed.
Swadhin Behera and Toshio Yamagata
The El Niño Modoki/La Niña Modoki (ENSO Modoki) is a newly acknowledged face of ocean-atmosphere coupled variability in the tropical Pacific Ocean. The oceanic and atmospheric conditions associated with the El Niño Modoki are different from that of canonical El Niño, which is extensively studied for its dynamics and worldwide impacts. A typical El Niño event is marked by a warm anomaly of sea surface temperature (SST) in the equatorial eastern Pacific. Because of the associated changes in the surface winds and the weakening of coastal upwelling, the coasts of South America suffer from widespread fish mortality during the event. Quite opposite of this characteristic change in the ocean condition, cold SST anomalies prevail in the eastern equatorial Pacific during the El Niño Modoki events, but with the warm anomalies intensified in the central Pacific. The boreal winter condition of 2004 is a typical example of such an event, when a tripole pattern is noticed in the SST anomalies; warm central Pacific flanked by cold eastern and western regions. The SST anomalies are coupled to a double cell in anomalous Walker circulation with rising motion in the central parts and sinking motion on both sides of the basin. This is again a different feature compared to the well-known single-cell anomalous Walker circulation during El Niños. La Niña Modoki is the opposite phase of the El Niño Modoki, when a cold central Pacific is flanked by warm anomalies on both sides.
The Modoki events are seen to peak in both boreal summer and winter and hence are not seasonally phase-locked to a single seasonal cycle like El Niño/La Niña events. Because of this distinction in the seasonality, the teleconnection arising from these events will vary between the seasons as teleconnection path will vary depending on the prevailing seasonal mean conditions in the atmosphere. Moreover, the Modoki El Niño/La Niña impacts over regions such as the western coast of the United States, the Far East including Japan, Australia, and southern Africa, etc., are opposite to those of the canonical El Niño/La Niña. For example, the western coasts of the United States suffer from severe droughts during El Niño Modoki, whereas those regions are quite wet during El Niño. The influences of Modoki events are also seen in tropical cyclogenesis, stratosphere warming of the Southern Hemisphere, ocean primary productivity, river discharges, sea level variations, etc. A remarkable feature associated with Modoki events is the decadal flattening of the equatorial thermocline and weakening of zonal thermal gradient. The associated ocean-atmosphere conditions have caused frequent and persistent developments of Modoki events in recent decades.
Saji N. Hameed
Discovered at the very end of the 20th century, the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) is a mode of natural climate variability that arises out of coupled ocean–atmosphere interaction in the Indian Ocean. It is associated with some of the largest changes of ocean–atmosphere state over the equatorial Indian Ocean on interannual time scales. IOD variability is prominent during the boreal summer and fall seasons, with its maximum intensity developing at the end of the boreal-fall season. Between the peaks of its negative and positive phases, IOD manifests a markedly zonal see-saw in anomalous sea surface temperature (SST) and rainfall—leading, in its positive phase, to a pronounced cooling of the eastern equatorial Indian Ocean, and a moderate warming of the western and central equatorial Indian Ocean; this is accompanied by deficit rainfall over the eastern Indian Ocean and surplus rainfall over the western Indian Ocean. Changes in midtropospheric heating accompanying the rainfall anomalies drive wind anomalies that anomalously lift the thermocline in the equatorial eastern Indian Ocean and anomalously deepen them in the central Indian Ocean. The thermocline anomalies further modulate coastal and open-ocean upwelling, thereby influencing biological productivity and fish catches across the Indian Ocean. The hydrometeorological anomalies that accompany IOD exacerbate forest fires in Indonesia and Australia and bring floods and infectious diseases to equatorial East Africa. The coupled ocean–atmosphere instability that is responsible for generating and sustaining IOD develops on a mean state that is strongly modulated by the seasonal cycle of the Austral-Asian monsoon; this setting gives the IOD its unique character and dynamics, including a strong phase-lock to the seasonal cycle. While IOD operates independently of the El Niño and Southern Oscillation (ENSO), the proximity between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, and the existence of oceanic and atmospheric pathways, facilitate mutual interactions between these tropical climate modes.
Stefano Tibaldi and Franco Molteni
The atmospheric circulation in the mid-latitudes of both hemispheres is usually dominated by westerly winds and by planetary-scale and shorter-scale synoptic waves, moving mostly from west to east. A remarkable and frequent exception to this “usual” behavior is atmospheric blocking. Blocking occurs when the usual zonal flow is hindered by the establishment of a large-amplitude, quasi-stationary, high-pressure meridional circulation structure which “blocks” the flow of the westerlies and the progression of the atmospheric waves and disturbances embedded in them. Such blocking structures can have lifetimes varying from a few days to several weeks in the most extreme cases. Their presence can strongly affect the weather of large portions of the mid-latitudes, leading to the establishment of anomalous meteorological conditions. These can take the form of strong precipitation episodes or persistent anticyclonic regimes, leading in turn to floods, extreme cold spells, heat waves, or short-lived droughts. Even air quality can be strongly influenced by the establishment of atmospheric blocking, with episodes of high concentrations of low-level ozone in summer and of particulate matter and other air pollutants in winter, particularly in highly populated urban areas.
Atmospheric blocking has the tendency to occur more often in winter and in certain longitudinal quadrants, notably the Euro-Atlantic and the Pacific sectors of the Northern Hemisphere. In the Southern Hemisphere, blocking episodes are generally less frequent, and the longitudinal localization is less pronounced than in the Northern Hemisphere.
Blocking has aroused the interest of atmospheric scientists since the middle of the last century, with the pioneering observational works of Berggren, Bolin, Rossby, and Rex, and has become the subject of innumerable observational and theoretical studies. The purpose of such studies was originally to find a commonly accepted structural and phenomenological definition of atmospheric blocking. The investigations went on to study blocking climatology in terms of the geographical distribution of its frequency of occurrence and the associated seasonal and inter-annual variability. Well into the second half of the 20th century, a large number of theoretical dynamic works on blocking formation and maintenance started appearing in the literature. Such theoretical studies explored a wide range of possible dynamic mechanisms, including large-amplitude planetary-scale wave dynamics, including Rossby wave breaking, multiple equilibria circulation regimes, large-scale forcing of anticyclones by synoptic-scale eddies, finite-amplitude non-linear instability theory, and influence of sea surface temperature anomalies, to name but a few. However, to date no unique theoretical model of atmospheric blocking has been formulated that can account for all of its observational characteristics.
When numerical, global short- and medium-range weather predictions started being produced operationally, and with the establishment, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, of the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, it quickly became of relevance to assess the capability of numerical models to predict blocking with the correct space-time characteristics (e.g., location, time of onset, life span, and decay). Early studies showed that models had difficulties in correctly representing blocking as well as in connection with their large systematic (mean) errors.
Despite enormous improvements in the ability of numerical models to represent atmospheric dynamics, blocking remains a challenge for global weather prediction and climate simulation models. Such modeling deficiencies have negative consequences not only for our ability to represent the observed climate but also for the possibility of producing high-quality seasonal-to-decadal predictions. For such predictions, representing the correct space-time statistics of blocking occurrence is, especially for certain geographical areas, extremely important.
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.