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.
In equatorial East Africa, glaciers still exist on Mount Kenya, Kilimanjaro, and Ruwenzori. The decreasing ice extent has been documented by field reports since the end of the 19th century and a series of mappings. For Mount Kenya, the mappings are of 1947, 1963, 1987, 1993, and 2004, with more detailed mappings of Lewis Glacier in 1934, 1958, 1963, 1974, 1978, 1982, 1985, 1986, 1990, and 1993. For Kilimanjaro, the sequence is 1912, 1953, 1976, 1989, and 2000. For Ruwenzori (for which information is more scarce), the information is from 1906, 1955, and 1990. Photographs are valuable complementary evidence. At Lewis Glacier on Mount Kenya, measurements of mass budget and ice flow have been conducted over decades. The climatic forcing of ice recession in East Africa at the onset in the 1880s was radiationally controlled, affecting the most exposed locations. Later warming caused further ice shrinkage, except on the summit plateau of Kilimanjaro, above the freezing level. Whereas the ice recession in the Ecuadorian Andes and New Guinea began in the middle of the 19th century, plausibly caused by warming, the late onset in East Africa should be appreciated in the context of large-scale circulation changes evidenced by the historical ship observations in the equatorial Indian Ocean.
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.
Water, not temperature, governs life in West Africa, and the region is both temporally and spatially greatly affected by rainfall variability. Recent rainfall anomalies, for example, have greatly reduced crop productivity in the Sahel area. Rainfall indices from recent centuries show that multidecadal droughts reoccur and, furthermore, that interannual rainfall variations are high in West Africa. Current knowledge of historical rainfall patterns is, however, fairly limited. A detailed rainfall chronology of West Africa is currently only available from the beginning of the 19th century. For the 18th century and earlier, the records are still sporadic, and an interannual rainfall chronology has so far only been obtained for parts of the Guinea Coast. Thus, there is a need to extend the rainfall record to fully understand past precipitation changes in West Africa.
The main challenge when investigating historical rainfall variability in West Africa is the scarcity of detailed and continuous data. Readily available meteorological data barely covers the last century, whereas in Europe and the United States for example, the data sometimes extend back two or more centuries. Data availability strongly correlates with the historical development of West Africa. The strong oral traditions that prevailed in the pre-literate societies meant that only some of the region’s history was recorded in writing before the arrival of the Europeans in the 16th century. From the 19th century onwards, there are, therefore, three types of documents available, and they are closely linked to the colonization of West Africa. These are: official records started by the colonial governments continuing to modern day; regular reporting stations started by the colonial powers; and finally, temporary nongovernmental observations of various kinds. For earlier periods, the researcher depends on noninstrumental observations found in letters, reports, or travel journals made by European slave traders, adventurers, and explorers. Spatially, these documents are confined to the coastal areas, as Europeans seldom ventured inland before the mid-1800s. Thus, the inland regions are generally poorly represented. Arabic chronicles from the Sahel provide the only source of information, but as historical documents, they include several spatiotemporal uncertainties. Climate researchers often complement historical data with proxy-data from nature’s own archives. However, the West African environment is restrictive. Reliable proxy-data, such as tree-rings, cannot be exploited effectively. Tropical trees have different growth patterns than trees in temperate regions and do not generate growth rings in the same manner. Sediment cores from Lake Bosumtwi in Ghana have provided, so far, the best centennial overview when it comes to understanding precipitation patterns during recent centuries. These reveal that there have been considerable changes in historical rainfall patterns—West Africa may have been even drier than it is today.
Benjamin F. Zaitchik
Humans have understood the importance of climate to human health since ancient times. In some cases, the connections appear to be obvious: a flood can cause drownings, a drought can lead to crop failure and hunger, and temperature extremes pose a risk of exposure. In other cases, the connections are veiled by complex or unobserved processes, such that the influence of climate on a disease epidemic or a conflict can be difficult to diagnose. In reality, however, all climate impacts on health are mediated by some combination of natural and human dynamics that cause individuals or populations to be vulnerable to the effects of a variable or changing climate.
Understanding and managing negative health impacts of climate is a global challenge. The challenge is greater in regions with high poverty and weak institutions, however, and Africa is a continent where the health burden of climate is particularly acute. Observed climate variability in the modern era has been associated with widespread food insecurity, significant epidemics of infectious disease, and loss of life and livelihoods to climate extremes. Anthropogenic climate change is a further stress that has the potential to increase malnutrition, alter the distribution of diseases, and bring more frequent hydrological and temperature extremes to many regions across the continent.
Skillful early warning systems and informed climate change adaptation strategies have the potential to enhance resilience to short-term climate variability and to buffer against negative impacts of climate change. But effective warnings and projections require both scientific and institutional capacity to address complex processes that are mediated by physical, ecological, and societal systems. Here the state of understanding climate impacts on health in Africa is summarized through a selective review that focuses on food security, infectious disease, and extreme events. The potential to apply scientific understanding to early warning and climate change projection is also considered.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Western and Central Equatorial Africa (WCEA), home to the Congo rainforests, is the green heart of the otherwise dry continent of Africa. Despite its crucial role in the Earth system, WCEA’s climate variability has received little attention compared to the rest of Africa. Climate variability in the region is a result of complex interactions among various features acting on local and global scales. The mesoscale convective systems (MCSs) that have a preferentially westward propagation and present a distinct diurnal cycle are the main source of rainfall in the region. As a result of strong MCS activity, WCEA stands out as a convective anomaly within the tropics and experiences the world’s most intense thunderstorms as well as the highest lightning flash rates. The moisture of the region is supplied primarily from the Atlantic Ocean, with additional contributions from local recycling and East Africa. WCEA, in turn, serves as a moisture source for other parts of the continent.
One striking characteristic of WCEA is its intrinsic heterogeneity with respect to interannual variability of rainfall, resulting in delineation of the region primarily in the zonal direction. This is in contrast to the meridionally oriented spatial variability of the annual cycle and underlines the fact that driving factors of the two can be quite different. The annual cycle is mainly determined by the seasonal excursion of the sun. However, the interannual and intraseasonal variability of the region are modulated by remote forcings from all three oceans, reflected via zonal atmospheric cells and equatorial wave dynamics. The local atmospheric jets and regional Walker-like circulations also contribute to WCEA’s climate variability by modulating the moisture transport and vertical motion.
The region has experienced an increasing rate of deforestation in recent decades and has made a significant contribution to the global biomass burning emissions that can alter regional and global circulation, along with energy and water cycles. The mean annual temperature of the region has increased by about 1°C in the past 70 years. The annual rainfall over the same period presents a negative trend, though that is quite negligible in the eastern sector of the region.
Climatic Changes and Cultural Responses During the African Humid Period Recorded in Multi-Proxy Data
David McGee and Peter B. deMenocal
The expansion and intensification of summer monsoon precipitation in North and East Africa during the African Humid Period (AHP; c. 15,000–5,000 years before present) is recorded by a wide range of natural archives, including lake and marine sediments, animal and plant remains, and human archaeological remnants. Collectively this diverse proxy evidence provides a detailed portrait of environmental changes during the AHP, illuminating the mechanisms, temporal and spatial evolution, and cultural impacts of this remarkable period of monsoon expansion across the vast expanse of North and East Africa.
The AHP corresponds to a period of high local summer insolation due to orbital precession that peaked at ~11–10 ka, and it is the most recent of many such precessionally paced pluvial periods over the last several million years. Low-latitude sites in the North African tropics and Sahel record an intensification of summer monsoon precipitation at ~15 ka, associated with both rising summer insolation and an abrupt warming of the high northern latitudes at this time. Following a weakening of monsoon strength during the Younger Dryas cold period (12.9–11.7 ka), proxy data point to peak intensification of the West African monsoon between 10–8 ka. These data document lake and wetland expansions throughout almost all of North Africa, expansion of grasslands, shrubs and even some tropical trees throughout much of the Sahara, increases in Nile and Niger River runoff, and proliferation of human settlements across the modern Sahara. The AHP was also marked by a pronounced reduction in windblown mineral dust emissions from the Sahara.
Proxy data suggest a time-transgressive end of the AHP, as sites in the northern and eastern Sahara become arid after 8–7 ka, while sites closer to the equator became arid later, between 5–3 ka. Locally abrupt drops in precipitation or monsoon strength appear to have been superimposed on this gradual, insolation-paced decline, with several sites to the north and east of the modern arid/semi-arid boundary showing evidence of century-scale shifts to drier conditions around 5 ka. This abrupt drying appears synchronous with rapid depopulation of the North African interior and an increase in settlement along the Nile River, suggesting a relationship between the end of the AHP and the establishment of proto-pharaonic culture.
Proxy data from the AHP provide an important testing ground for model simulations of mid-Holocene climate. Comparisons with proxy-based precipitation estimates have long indicated that mid-Holocene simulations by general circulation models substantially underestimate the documented expansion of the West African monsoon during the AHP. Proxy data point to potential feedbacks that may have played key roles in amplifying monsoon expansion during the AHP, including changes in vegetation cover, lake surface area, and mineral dust loading.
This article also highlights key areas for future research. Among these are the role of land surface and mineral aerosol changes in amplifying West African monsoon variability; the nature and drivers of monsoon variability during the AHP; the response of human populations to the end of the AHP; and understanding locally abrupt drying at the end of the AHP.
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.
A. Johannes Dolman, Luis U. Vilasa-Abad, and Thomas A. J. Janssen
Drylands cover around 40% of the land surface on Earth and are inhabited by more than 2 billion people, who are directly dependent on these lands. Drylands are characterized by a highly variable rainfall regime and inherent vegetation-climate feedbacks that can enhance the resilience of the system, but also can amplify disturbances. In that way, the system may get locked into two alternate stable states: one relatively wet and vegetated, and the other dry and barren. The resilience of dryland ecosystems derives from a number of adaptive mechanisms by which the vegetation copes with prolonged water stress, such as hydraulic redistribution. The stochastic nature of both the vegetation dynamics and the rainfall regime is a key characteristic of these systems and affects its management in relation to the feedbacks. How the ecohydrology of the African drylands will change in the future depends on further changes in climate, human disturbances, land use, and the socioeconomic system.
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.
For several decades, the Sahelian countries have been facing continuing rainfall shortages, which, coupled with anthropogenic factors, have severely disrupted the great ecological balance, leading the area in an inexorable process of desertification and land degradation. The Sahel faces a persistent problem of climate change with high rainfall variability and frequent droughts, and this is one of the major drivers of population’s vulnerability in the region. Communities struggle against severe land degradation processes and live in an unprecedented loss of productivity that hampers their livelihoods and puts them among the populations in the world that are the most vulnerable to climatic change. In response to severe land degradation, 11 countries of the Sahel agreed to work together to address the policy, investment, and institutional barriers to establishing a land-restoration program that addresses climate change and land degradation. The program is called the Pan-Africa Initiative for the Great Green Wall (GGW). The initiative aims at helping to halt desertification and land degradation in the Sahelian zone, improving the lives and livelihoods of smallholder farmers and pastoralists in the area and helping its populations to develop effective adaptation strategies and responses through the use of tree-based development programs. To make the GGW initiative successful, member countries have established a coordinated and integrated effort from the government level to local scales and engaged with many stakeholders. Planning, decision-making, and actions on the ground is guided by participation and engagement, informed by policy-relevant knowledge to address the set of scalable land-restoration practices, and address drivers of land use change in various human-environmental contexts. In many countries, activities specific to achieving the GGW objectives have been initiated in the last five years.
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.
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.
Jonathan Holmes and Philipp Hoelzmann
From the end of the last glacial stage until the mid-Holocene, large areas of arid and semi-arid North Africa were much wetter than present, during the interval that is known as the African Humid Period (AHP). During this time, large areas were characterized by a marked increase in precipitation, an expansion of lakes, river systems, and wetlands, and the spread of grassland, shrub land, and woodland vegetation into areas that are currently much drier. Simulations with climate models indicate that the AHP was the result of orbitally forced increase in northern hemisphere summer insolation, which caused the intensification and northward expansion of the boreal summer monsoon. However, feedbacks from ocean circulation, land-surface cover, and greenhouse gases were probably also important.
Lake basins and their sediment archives have provided important information about climate during the AHP, including the overall increases in precipitation and in rates, trajectories, and spatial variations in change at the beginning and the end of the interval. The general pattern is one of apparently synchronous onset of the AHP at the start of the Bølling-Allerød interstadial around 14,700 years ago, although wet conditions were interrupted by aridity during the Younger Dryas stadial. Wetter conditions returned at the start of the Holocene around 11,700 years ago covering much of North Africa and extended into parts of the southern hemisphere, including southeastern Equatorial Africa. During this time, the expansion of lakes and of grassland or shrub land vegetation over the area that is now the Sahara desert, was especially marked. Increasing aridity through the mid-Holocene, associated with a reduction in northern hemisphere summer insolation, brought about the end of the AHP by around 5000–4000 years before present. The degree to which this end was abrupt or gradual and geographically synchronous or time transgressive, remains open to debate. Taken as a whole, the lake sediment records do not support rapid and synchronous declines in precipitation and vegetation across the whole of North Africa, as some model experiments and other palaeoclimate archives have suggested. Lake sediments from basins that desiccated during the mid-Holocene may have been deflated, thus providing a misleading picture of rapid change. Moreover, different proxies of climate or environment may respond in contrasting ways to the same changes in climate. Despite this, there is evidence of rapid (within a few hundred years) termination to the AHP in some regions, with clear signs of a time-transgressive response both north to south and east to west, pointing to complex controls over the mid-Holocene drying of North Africa.