, Volume 33, Issue 2-3, pp 313-330,
Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.
Date: 12 Apr 2009

Seasonal evolution of the West African heat low: a climatological perspective


The West African heat low (WAHL), a region of high surface temperatures and low surface pressures, is a key element of the West African monsoon system. In this study, we propose a method to detect the WAHL in order to monitor its climatological seasonal displacement over West Africa during the period 1979–2001, using the European Centre for Medium-range Weather Forecast (ECMWF) ERA-40 reanalyses. The low-level atmospheric thickness (LLAT), a variable defined as the difference of geopotential heights at 700 and 925 hPa, is used to detect the dilatation of these levels generated by an increase of the temperature. We define grid points with 10% highest values of the LLAT as the WAHL. We show that our method reliably positions the WAHL over areas of high surface temperatures and low surface pressures, and that it is effective at detecting heat lows. In the course of the year, the climatological WAHL is shown to migrate north-westward from a position south of the Darfur mountains in the winter (November–March) to a location over the Sahara, between the Hoggar and the Atlas mountains, during the summer (June–September). The temperature tendency equation is used to investigate the processes controlling the displacement of the WAHL, and more particularly the heating at low levels. The specific period of the onset of the WAHL in its summer location over the Sahara (referred to as the Saharan heat low -SHL- onset) is also analysed during the 1984–2001 period, using complementary brightness temperature data from the European Union-funded Cloud Archive User Service (CLAUS). The climatological onset of the SHL occurs around 20 June, i.e. just before the climatological monsoon onset date. The present study suggests that the onset of the WAHL occurs approximately 5 days before the monsoon onset for the 1984–2001 period. This is confirmed independently by comparing the SHL onset date and the monsoon onset date for the 1984–2001 period. The seasonal evolution of the WAHL for the year 2006 (the year of the African Monsoon Multidisciplinary Analysis project Special Observation Period) is analysed and compared with the climatological results. The operational ECMWF analyses were used for that purpose. Except in April, the spatial distribution of the WAHL remains relatively unchanged and agrees with the climatology. The onset of the SHL in 2006 occurs on 18 June, which is close to the climatological date, in spite of the delay in the onset of the rainy season in Sahel.