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.
What are the local consequences of a global climate change? This question is important for proper handling of risks associated with weather and climate. It also tacitly assumes that there is a systematic link between conditions taking place on a global scale and local effects. It is the utilization of the dependency of local climate on the global picture that is the backbone of downscaling; however, it is perhaps easiest to explain the concept of downscaling in climate research if we start asking why it is necessary.
Global climate models are our best tools for computing future temperature, wind, and precipitation (or other climatological variables), but their limitations do not let them calculate local details for these quantities. It is simply not adequate to interpolate from model results. However, the models are able to predict large-scale features, such as circulation patterns, El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), and the global mean temperature. The local temperature and precipitation are nevertheless related to conditions taking place over a larger surrounding region as well as local geographical features (also true, in general, for variables connected to weather/climate). This, of course, also applies to other weather elements.
Downscaling makes use of systematic dependencies between local conditions and large-scale ambient phenomena in addition to including information about the effect of the local geography on the local climate. The application of downscaling can involve several different approaches. This article will discuss various downscaling strategies and methods and will elaborate on their rationale, assumptions, strengths, and weaknesses.
One important issue is the presence of spontaneous natural year-to-year variations that are not necessarily directly related to the global state, but are internally generated and superimposed on the long-term climate change. These variations typically involve phenomena such as ENSO, the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO), and the Southeast Asian monsoon, which are nonlinear and non-deterministic.
We cannot predict the exact evolution of non-deterministic natural variations beyond a short time horizon. It is possible nevertheless to estimate probabilities for their future state based, for instance, on projections with models run many times with slightly different set-up, and thereby to get some information about the likelihood of future outcomes.
When it comes to downscaling and predicting regional and local climate, it is important to use many global climate model predictions. Another important point is to apply proper validation to make sure the models give skillful predictions.
For some downscaling approaches such as regional climate models, there usually is a need for bias adjustment due to model imperfections. This means the downscaling doesn’t get the right answer for the right reason. Some of the explanations for the presence of biases in the results may be different parameterization schemes in the driving global and the nested regional models.
A final underlying question is: What can we learn from downscaling? The context for the analysis is important, as downscaling is often used to find answers to some (implicit) question and can be a means of extracting most of the relevant information concerning the local climate. It is also important to include discussions about uncertainty, model skill or shortcomings, model validation, and skill scores.