Synoptic to Intraseasonal Variability of African Rainfall

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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.

Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Climate Science