Rainfall over Africa varies across timescales of a few days to several weeks due to several tropical and extratropical modes of variability. Excessive rains or prolonged drought regularly result in natural disasters and have thus a severe impact on the local economy, agriculture, spread of diseases, and entire ecosystems. The dynamical nature of the atmosphere allows the existence of planetary balanced modes, which are called Rossby waves, and smaller-scale unbalanced inertio-gravity (IG) waves. The former, which are more rotational, arise from the horizontal pressure gradient force, while for the latter gravity acts as the restoring force, making their flow pattern more divergent. The main source of variability in the extratropics stems from Rossby waves. At the equator, further types of convectively coupled equatorial waves (CCEWs) exist, namely Kelvin and mixed Rossby-gravity (MRG) waves. As the slowest intraseasonal tropical mode, the Madden–Julian Oscillation (MJO), which is related to Kelvin and Rossby waves, acts on a timescale of 30 to 90 days. Although it is primarily a planetary mode, the MJO has a specific “flavor” over the African continent. On the short intraseasonal timescale of 10 to 25 days, equatorial Rossby (ER) waves and the internal modes of the West African monsoon, the quasi-biweekly zonal dipole (QBZD) and the Sahel mode, modulate rainfall. On the synoptic timescale of a few days to a week, African easterly waves (AEWs) are a dominant mode over West Africa, whereas Kelvin waves predominantly modulate rainfall over equatorial Africa. Extratropical influences on northern and southern Africa manifest themselves in Rossby wave trains, which modulate synoptic to intraseasonal rainfall through tropical rainfall plumes, cold air surges, and upper-tropospheric dry air intrusions. Furthermore, the Saharan heat low (SHL) acts as a link between the northern hemispheric extratropics and tropics. Finally, the Indian monsoon, the Atlantic, Indian, and the Pacific Oceans can remotely affect the intraseasonal variability of African rainfall. Forecasting synoptic to intraseasonal rainfall variability is an integral part of seamless prediction between the weather and climate regimes. In the early 21st century, numerical weather prediction (NWP) systems can forecast larger intraseasonal signals such as the MJO several weeks into the future, but they still struggle to forecast shorter scale features reliably. Besides NWP, statistical models can successfully forecast intraseasonal variability of rainfall. Due to the relevance of synoptic to intraseasonal rainfall variability for African societies, early warning systems (EWSs) have been developed to mitigate impacts.
Even though many features of the vegetation and of the soil moisture distribution over Africa reflect its climatic zones, the land surface has the potential to feed back on the atmosphere and on the climate of Africa. The land surface and the atmosphere communicate via the surface energy budget. A particularly important control of the land surface, besides its control on albedo, is on the partitioning between sensible and latent heat flux. In a soil moisture-limited regime, for instance, an increase in soil moisture leads to an increase in latent heat flux at the expanse of the sensible heat flux. The result is a cooling and a moistening of the planetary boundary layer. On the one hand, this thermodynamically affects the atmosphere by altering the stability and the moisture content of the vertical column. Depending on the initial atmospheric profile, convection may be enhanced or suppressed. On the other hand, a confined perturbation of the surface state also has a dynamical imprint on the atmospheric flow by generating horizontal gradients in temperature and pressure. Such gradients spin up shallow circulations that affect the development of convection. Whereas the importance of such circulations for the triggering of convection over the Sahel region is well accepted and well understood, the effect of such circulations on precipitation amounts as well as on mature convective systems remains unclear. Likewise, the magnitude of the impact of large-scale perturbations of the land surface state on the large-scale circulation of the atmosphere, such as the West African monsoon, has long been debated. One key issue is that such interactions have been mainly investigated in general circulation models where the key involved processes have to rely on uncertain parameterizations, making a definite assessment difficult.
Jürgen Scheffran, Peter Michael Link, and Janpeter Schilling
Climate change was conceived as a “risk multiplier” that could exacerbate security risks and conflicts in fragile regions and hotspots where poverty, violence, injustice, and social insecurity are prevalent. The linkages have been most extensively studied for the African continent, which is affected by both climate change and violent conflict. Together with other drivers, climate change can undermine human security and livelihoods of vulnerable communities in Africa through different pathways. These include variability in temperature and precipitation; weather extremes and natural disasters, such as floods and droughts; resource problems through water scarcity, land degradation, and food insecurity; forced migration and farmer–herder conflict; and infrastructure for transport, water, and energy supply. Through these channels, climate change may contribute to humanitarian crises and conflict, subject to local conditions for the different regions of Africa. While a number of statistical studies find no significant link between reduced precipitation and violent conflict in Africa, several studies do detect such a link, mostly in interaction with other issues. The effects of climate change on resource conflicts are often indirect, complex, and linked to political, economic, and social conflict factors, including social inequalities, low economic development, and ineffective institutions.
Regions dependent on rainfed agriculture are more sensitive to civil conflict following droughts. Rising food prices can contribute to food insecurity and violence. Water scarcity and competition in river basins are partly associated with low-level conflicts, depending on socioeconomic variables and management practices. Another conflict factor in sub-Saharan Africa are shifting migration routes of herders who need grazing land to avoid livestock losses, while farmers depend on land for growing their harvest. Empirical findings reach no consensus on how climate vulnerability and violence interact with environmental migration, which also could be seen as an adaptation measure strengthening community resilience. Countries with a low human development index (HDI) are particularly vulnerable to the double exposure to natural disasters and armed conflict. Road and water infrastructures influence the social and political consequences of climate stress. The high vulnerabilities and low adaptive capacities of many African countries may increase the probability of violent conflicts related to climate change impacts.
David S. G. Thomas
Quaternary paleoclimate reconstructions in tropical-subtropical southern Africa (taken here as approximately south of latitude 17oS) require both knowledge of the key relevant elements of the atmospheric and climate systems over the subcontinent and a realistic assessment of the possibilities and limitations of the proxy data sources in the region. Direct insolation forcing and southern hemisphere ocean temperature changes are widely considered as key drivers of temporal and spatial changes in the relative influence of different components of the circulation system (tropical Indian ocean monsoon, tropical Atlantic moisture, and temperate westerlies) that in turn drive precipitation distributions, amounts, and seasonality. Major debates in recent decades have focused on the timing and extent of aridity/humidity shifts, and the relative contribution of temperate and tropical sources of precipitation during the last ca. 100 ka, notably at the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) and during the Holocene climate optimum.
Many of the debates and uncertainties that have emerged are also a function of proxy data sources: where they are located, how they are interpreted, and their resolution. Extrapolation of data from marine core and high-resolution terrestrial records to subregions where proxies are sparse, low resolution, or difficult to transform from environmental to climatic signals, might oversimply representation of the spatial variability of past climates in a region where variability is a norm today. For example, difficulties can occur in the southern African interior, where reliable climate proxies have been limited and where available proxies provide reconstructions of physical changes in landscape systems that can prove difficult to translate to high precision hydrological and rainfall records. Elsewhere, where new proxies have been emerging, such as data from hyrax middens and developments in interpreting palynological and isotope records, notable advances have been occurring, leading to the reanalysis of hydrological fluxes in the last 50 ka, including the development of records with high temporal resolution.
In this article some of the key issues surrounding the Quaternary climates of southern Africa are considered, focusing on debates regarding the principal drivers of climate changes, the utility of different proxy data sources, and the temporal and spatial extent of past climate changes.
Ricardo García-Herrera and David Barriopedro
The Mediterranean is a semi-enclosed sea surrounded by Europe to the north, Asia to the east, and Africa to the south. It covers an area of approximately 2.5 million km2, between 30–46 °N latitude and 6 °W and 36 °E longitude. The term Mediterranean climate is applied beyond the Mediterranean region itself and has been used since the early 20th century to classify other regions of the world, such as California or South Africa, usually located in the 30º–40º latitudinal band. The Mediterranean climate can be broadly characterized by warm to hot dry summers and mild wet winters. However, this broad picture hides important variations, which can be explained through the existence of two geographical gradients: North/South, with a warmer and drier south, and West/East, more influenced by Atlantic/Asian circulation.
The region is located at a crossroad between the mid-latitudes and the subtropical regimes. Thus, small changes in the Atlantic storm track may lead to dramatic changes in the precipitation of the northwestern area of the basin. The variability of the descending northern branch of the Hadley cell influences the climate of the southern margin, while the eastern border climate is conditioned by the Siberian High in winter and the Indian Summer Monsoon during summer. All these large-scale factors are modulated by the complex orography of the region, the contrasting albedo, and the moisture and heat supplied by the Mediterranean Sea. The interactions occurring among all these factors lead to a complex picture with some relevant phenomena characteristic of the Mediterranean region, such as heatwaves and droughts, Saharan dust intrusions, or specific types of cyclogenesis.
Climate model projections generally agree in characterizing the region as a climate change hotspot, considering that it is one of the areas of the globe likely to suffer pronounced climate changes. Anthropogenic influences are not new, since the region is densely populated and is the home of some the oldest civilizations on Earth. This has produced multiple and continuous modifications in the land cover, with measurable impacts on climate that can be traced from the rich available documentary evidence and high-resolution natural proxies.
Sharon E. Nicholson
This article provides an in-depth look at all aspects of the climate of the Sahel, including the pervasive dust in the Sahelian atmosphere. Emphasis is on two aspects: West African monsoon and the region’s rainfall regime. This includes an overview of the prevailing atmospheric circulation at the surface and aloft and the relationship between this and the rainfall regime. Aspects of the rainfall regime that are considered include its unique characteristics, its changes over time, the storm systems that produce rainfall, and factors governing its variability on interannual and decadal time scales. Variability is examined on three time scales: millennial (as seen is the paleo records of the last 20,000 years), multi-decadal (as seen over the last few centuries as seen from proxy data and, more recently, in observations), and interannual to decadal (quantified by observations from the late 19th century and onward). A unique feature of Sahel climate is that is rainfall regime is perhaps the most sensitive in the world and this sensitivity is apparent on all of these time scales.
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.
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.
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.
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.