Meteorology and Atmospheric Physics

, Volume 66, Issue 3–4, pp 243–258

SST variability in the South Indian Ocean and associated circulation and rainfall patterns over Southern Africa

  • C. J. C. Reason
  • C. R. Godfred-Spenning

DOI: 10.1007/BF01026637

Cite this article as:
Reason, C.J.C. & Godfred-Spenning, C.R. Meteorl. Atmos. Phys. (1998) 66: 243. doi:10.1007/BF01026637


A general circulation model is used to study the response of the atmosphere to an idealised sea surface temperature (SST) anomaly pattern (warm throughout the southern midlatitudes, cool in the tropics) in the South Indian Ocean region. The anomaly imposed on monthly SST climatology captures the essence of patterns observed in the South Indian Ocean during both ENSO events and multidecadal epochs, and facilitates diagnosis of the model response. A previous study with this anomaly imposed in the model examined differences in the response between that on the seasonal scale (favours enhancement of the original SST anomaly) and that on the decadal scale (favours damping of the anomaly). The current study extends that work firstly by comparing the response on the intraseasonal, seasonal and interannual scales, and secondly, by assessing the changes in the circulation and rainfall over the adjoining African landmass.

It is found that the atmospheric response is favourable for enhancement of the original SST anomaly on scales up to, and including, annual. However, as the scale becomes interannual (i.e., 15–21 months after imposition of the anomaly), the model response suggests that damping of the original SST anomaly becomes likely. Compared to the shorter scale response, the perturbation pressure and wind distribution on the interannual scale is shifted poleward, and is more reminiscent of the decadal response. Winds are now stronger over the warm anomaly in the southern midlatitudes suggesting enhanced surface fluxes, upper ocean mixing, and consequently, a damping of the anomaly.

Examination of the circulation and rainfall patterns indicates that there are significant anomalies over large parts of southern Africa during the spring, summer and autumn seasons for both short (intraseasonal to interannual) and decadal scales. It appears that rainfall anomalies are associated with changes in the advection of moist tropical air from the Indian Ocean and its related convergence over southern Africa. Over eastern equatorial Africa, the austral autumn season (the main wet season) showed rainfall increases on all time scales, while parts of central to eastern subtropical southern Africa were dry. The signals during summer were more varied. Spring showed generally dry conditions over the eastern half of southern Africa on both short and decadal time scales, with wet areas confined to the west. In all cases, the magnitude of the rainfall anomalies accumulated over a 90 day season were of the order of 90–180 mm, and therefore represent a significant fraction of the annual total of many areas. It appears that relatively modest SST anomalies in the South Indian Ocean can lead to sizeable rainfall anomalies in the model. Although precipitation in general circulation models tends to be less accurately simulated than many other variables, the model results, together with previous observational work, emphasize the need for ongoing monitoring of SST in this region.

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 1998

Authors and Affiliations

  • C. J. C. Reason
    • 1
  • C. R. Godfred-Spenning
    • 1
  1. 1.School of Earth SciencesUniversity of MelbourneParkvilleAustralia

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