Climate model simulations analyzed as part of the study revealed that the relationship between sea surface temperatures and atmospheric convection in the Indian Ocean changes rainfall in East Africa. Specifically, wet conditions in coastal East Africa are associated with cool sea surface temperatures in the eastern Indian Ocean and warm sea surface temperatures in the western Indian Ocean, which cause ascending atmospheric circulation over East Africa and enhanced rainfall. The opposite situation—cold sea surface temperatures in the western Indian Ocean and warmer in the East—causes drought. Such variations in sea-surface temperatures likely caused the historical fluctuations in rainfall seen in the paleorecord. (Courtesy Jessica Tierney, et al, 2013)
[News release contributed by the Woods Hole Oceanograhic Institution]
With more than 40 million people living under exceptional drought conditions in East Africa, the ability to make accurate predictions of drought has never been more important. In the aftermath of widespread famine and a humanitarian crisis caused by the 2010-2011 drought in the Horn of Africa—possibly the worst drought in 60 years— researchers are striving to determine whether drying trends will continue.
While it is clear that El Niño can affect precipitation in this region of East Africa, very little is known about the drivers of long-term shifts in rainfall. However, new research described in the journal Nature helps explain the mechanisms at work behind historical patterns of aridity in Eastern Africa over many decades, and the findings may help improve future predictions of drought and food security in the region.
“The problem is, instrumental records of temperature and rainfall, especially in East Africa, don’t go far enough in time to study climate variability over decades or more, since they are generally limited to the 20th century,” explains first author Jessica Tierney, a geologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). Tierney and her colleagues at WHOI and the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University used what is known as the paleoclimate record, which provides information on climate in the geologic past, to study East African climate change over a span of 700 years.
The study was funded in part by the Earth System Science (ESS) program of NOAA’s Climate Program Office.