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.
Sharon E. Nicholson
Climate change influences the Baltic Sea ecosystem via its effects on oceanography and biogeochemistry. Sea surface temperature has been projected to increase by 2 to 4 °C until 2100 due to global warming; the changes will be more significant in the northern areas and less so in the south. The warming up will also diminish the annual sea ice cover by 57% to 71%, and ice season will be one to three months shorter than in the early 21st century, depending on latitude. A significant decrease in sea surface salinity has been projected because of an increase in rainfall and decrease of saline inflows into the Baltic Sea. The increasing surface flow has, in turn, been projected to increase leaching of nutrients from the soil to the watershed and eventually into the Baltic Sea. Also, acidification of the seawater and sea-level rise have been predicted. Increasing seawater temperature speeds up metabolic processes and increases growth rates of many secondary producers. Species associated with sea ice, from salt brine microbes to seals, will suffer. Due to the specific salinity tolerances, species’ geographical ranges may shift by tens or hundreds of kilometres with decreasing salinity. A decrease in pH will slow down calcification of bivalve shells, and higher temperatures also alleviate establishment of non-indigenous species originating from more southern sea areas. Many uncertainties still remain in predicting the couplings between atmosphere, oceanography and ecosystem. Especially projections of many oceanographic parameters, such as wind speeds and directions, the mean salinity level, and density stratification, are still ambiguous. Also, the effects of simultaneous changes in multiple environmental factors on species with variable preferences to temperature, salinity, and nutrient conditions are difficult to project. There is, however, enough evidence to claim that due to increasing runoff of nutrients from land and warming up of water, primary production and sedimentation of organic matter will increase; this will probably enhance anoxia and release of phosphorus from sediments. Such changes may keep the Baltic Sea in an eutrophicated state for a long time, unless strong measures to decrease nutrient runoff from land are taken. Changes in the pelagic and benthic communities are anticipated. Benthic communities will change from marine to relatively more euryhaline communities and will suffer from hypoxic events. The projected temperature increase and salinity decline will contribute to maintain the pelagic ecosystem of the Central Baltic and the Gulf of Finland in a state dominated by cyanobacteria, flagellates, small-sized zooplankton and sprat, instead of diatoms, large marine copepods, herring, and cod. Effects vary from area to area, however. In particular the Bothnian Sea, where hypoxia is less common and rivers carry a lot of dissolved organic carbon, primary production will probably not increase as much as in the other basins. The coupled oceanography-biogeochemistry ecosystem models have greatly advanced our understanding of the effects of climate change on marine ecosystems. Also, studies on climate associated “regime shifts” and cascading effects from top predators to plankton have been fundamental for understanding of the response of the Baltic Sea ecosystem to anthropogenic and climatic stress. In the future, modeling efforts should be focusing on coupling of biogeochemical processes and lower trophic levels to the top predators. Also, fine resolution species distribution models should be developed and combined with 3-D modelling, to describe how the species and communities are responding to climate-induced changes in environmental variables.
Judith L. Lean
Emergent in recent decades are robust specifications and understanding of connections between the Sun’s changing radiative energy and Earth’s changing climate and atmosphere. This follows more than a century of contentious debate about the reality of such connections, fueled by ambiguous observations, dubious correlations, and lack of plausible mechanisms. It derives from a new generation of observations of the Sun and the Earth made from space, and a new generation of physical climate models that integrate the Earth’s surface and ocean with the extended overlying atmosphere. Space-based observations now cover more than three decades and enable statistical attribution of climate change related to the Sun’s 11-year activity cycle on global scales, simultaneously with other natural and anthropogenic influences. Physical models that fully resolve the stratosphere and its embedded ozone layer better replicate the complex and subtle processes that couple the Sun and Earth. An increase of ~0.1% in the Sun’s total irradiance, as observed near peak activity during recent 11-year solar cycles, is associated with an increase of ~0.1oC in Earth’s global surface temperature, with additional complex, time-dependent regional responses. The overlying atmosphere warms more, by 0.3oC near 20 km. Because solar radiation impinges primarily at low latitudes, the increased radiant energy alters equator-to-pole thermal gradients, initiating dynamical responses that produce regions of both warming and cooling at mid to high latitudes. Because solar energy deposition depends on altitude as a result of height-dependent atmospheric absorption, changing solar radiation establishes vertical thermal gradients that further alter dynamical motions within the Earth system. It remains uncertain whether there are long-term changes in solar irradiance on multidecadal time scales other than due to the varying amplitude of the 11-year cycle. If so the magnitude of the additional change is expected to be comparable to that observed during the solar activity cycle. Were the Sun’s activity to become anomalously low, declining during the next century to levels of the Maunder Minimum (from 1645 to 1715), the expected global surface temperature cooling is less than a few tenths oC. In contrast, a scenario of moderate greenhouse gas increase with climate forcing of 2.6 W m−2 over the next century is expected to warm the globe 1.5 to 1.9oC, an order of magnitude more than the hypothesized solar-induced cooling over the same period. Future challenges include the following: securing sufficiently robust observations of the Sun and Earth to elucidate changes on climatological time scales; advancing physical climate models to simulate realistic responses to changing solar radiation on decadal time scales, synergistically at the Earth’s surface and in the ocean and atmosphere; disentangling the Sun’s influence from that of other natural and anthropogenic influences as the climate and atmosphere evolve; projecting past and future changes in the Sun and Earth’s climate and atmosphere; and communicating new understanding across scientific disciplines, and to political and societal stakeholders.
Anjuli S. Bamzai
In the years following the Second World War, the U.S. government played a prominent role in the support of basic scientific research. The National Science Foundation (NSF) was created in 1950 with the primary mission of supporting fundamental science and engineering, excluding medical sciences. Over the years, the NSF has operated from the “bottom up,” keeping close track of research around the United States and the world while maintaining constant contact with the research community to identify ever-moving horizons of inquiry. In the 1950s the field of meteorology was something of a poor cousin to the other branches of science; forecasting was considered more of trade than a discipline founded on sound theoretical foundations. Realizing the importance of the field to both the economy and national security, the NSF leadership made a concerted effort to enhance understanding of the global atmospheric circulation. The National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) was established to complement ongoing research efforts in academic institutions; it has played a pivotal role in providing observational and modeling tools to the emerging cadre of researchers in the disciplines of meteorology and atmospheric sciences. As understanding of the predictability of the coupled atmosphere-ocean system grew, the field of climate science emerged as a natural outgrowth of meteorology, oceanography, and atmospheric sciences. The NSF played a leading role in the implementation of major international programs such as the International Geophysical Year (IGY), the Global Weather Experiment, the World Ocean Circulation Experiment (WOCE) and Tropical Ocean Global Atmosphere (TOGA). Through these programs, understanding of the coupled climate system comprising atmosphere, ocean, land, ice-sheet, and sea ice greatly improved. Consistent with its mission, the NSF supported projects that advanced fundamental knowledge of forcing and feedbacks in the coupled atmosphere-ocean-land system. Research projects have included theoretical, observational, and modeling studies of the following: the general circulation of the stratosphere and troposphere; the processes that govern climate; the causes of climate variability and change; methods of predicting climate variations; climate predictability; development and testing of parameterization of physical processes; numerical methods for use in large-scale climate models; the assembly and analysis of instrumental and/or modeled climate data; data assimilation studies; and the development and use of climate models to diagnose and simulate climate variability and change. Climate scientists work together on an array of topics spanning time scales from the seasonal to the centennial. The NSF also supports research on the natural evolution of the earth’s climate on geological time scales with the goal of providing a baseline for present variability and future trends. The development of paleoclimate data sets has resulted in longer term data for evaluation of model simulations, analogous to the evaluation using instrumental observations. This has enabled scientists to create transformative syntheses of paleoclimate data and modeling outcomes in order to understand the response of the longer-term and higher magnitude variability of the climate system that is observed in the geological records. The NSF will continue to address emerging issues in climate and earth-system science through balanced investments in transformative ideas, enabling infrastructure and major facilities to be developed.
Biomass burning is widespread in sub-Saharan Africa, which harbors more than half of global biomass burning activity. These African open fires are mostly induced by humans for various purposes, ranging from agricultural land clearing and residue burning to deforestation. They affect a wide variety of land ecosystems, including forests, woodlands, shrublands, savannas, grasslands, and croplands. Satellite observations show that fires are distributed almost equally between the northern and southern hemispheres of sub-Saharan Africa, with a dipole-type annual distribution pattern, peaking during the dry (winter) season of either hemisphere. The widespread nature of African biomass burning and the tremendous amounts of particulate and gas-phase emissions the fires produce have been shown to affect a variety of processes that ultimately impact the earth’s atmospheric composition and chemistry, air quality, water cycle, and climate in a significant manner. However, there is still a high level of uncertainty in the quantitative characterization of biomass burning, and its emissions and impacts in Africa and globally. These uncertainties can be potentially alleviated through improvements in the spatial and temporal resolutions of satellite observations, numerical modeling and data assimilation, complemented by occasional field campaigns. In addition, there is great need for the general public, policy makers, and funding organizations within Africa to recognize the seriousness of uncontrolled biomass burning and its potential consequences, in order to bring the necessary human and financial resources to bear on essential policies and scientific research activities that can effectively address the threats posed by the combined adverse influences of the changing climate, biomass burning, and other environmental challenges in sub-Saharan Africa.
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.
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.