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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.

Article

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.