Modification of the southern African rainfall variability/ENSO relationship since the late 1960s
Analysis of 149 raingauge series (1946–1988) shows a weak positive correlation between late summer rainfalls (January–March) in tropical southern Africa and the Southern Oscillation Index (SOI). The correlation coefficients have been unstable since World War II. They were close to zero before 1970 and significant thereafter. Before 1970, southern African late summer rainfalls were more specifically correlated with regional patterns of sea surface temperature (SST), mainly over the southwestern Indian Ocean. After 1970, teleconnections with near global SST anomaly patterns, i.e. over the central Pacific and Indian oceans, dominate the regional connections. The increase in the sensitivity of the southern African rainfall to the global SO-related circulation anomalies is simultaneous with the correlation between SOI and more extensive SST anomalies, particularly over the southern Indian Ocean. This feature is part of longer term (decadal), global SST variability, as inferred from statistical analyses. Numerical experiments, using the Météo-France general circulation model ARPEGE-Climat, are performed to test the impact of the observed SST warming in the southern Indian and extratropical oceans during El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) events on southern African rainfall. Simulated results show that ENSO events, which occurred in the relatively cold background of the pre-1970 period in the southern oceans, had a little effect on southern Africa climatic conditions and atmospheric circulation. By contrast, more recent ENSO events, with warmer SST over the southern oceans, lead to a climatic bipolar pattern between continental southern African and the western Indian Ocean, which is characterized by reduced (enhanced) deep convection and rainfall over the subcontinent (the western Indian Ocean). A weaker subtropical high-pressure belt in the southwestern Indian Ocean is also simulated, along with a reduced penetration of the moist southern Indian Ocean trade winds over the southern African plateau. These results are consistent with the strong droughts observed over all southern Africa during ENSO events since 1970.
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