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Atmospheric teleconnection mechanisms of extratropical North Atlantic SST influence on Sahel rainfall


Extratropical North Atlantic cooling has been tied to droughts over the Sahel in both paleoclimate observations and modeling studies. This study, which uses an atmospheric general circulation model (GCM) coupled to a slab ocean model that simulates this connection, explores the hypothesis that the extratropical North Atlantic cooling causes the Sahel droughts via an atmospheric teleconnection mediated by tropospheric cooling. The drying is also produced in a regional climate model simulation of the Sahel when reductions in air temperature (and associated geopotential height and humidity changes) from the GCM simulation are imposed as the lateral boundary conditions. This latter simulation explicitly demonstrates the central role of tropospheric cooling in mediating the atmospheric teleconnection from extratropical North Atlantic cooling. Diagnostic analyses are applied to the GCM simulation to infer teleconnection mechanisms. An analysis of top of atmosphere radiative flux changes diagnosed with a radiative kernel technique shows that extratropical North Atlantic cooling is augmented by a positive low cloud feedback and advected downstream, cooling Europe and North Africa. The cooling over North Africa is further amplified by a reduced greenhouse effect from decreased atmospheric specific humidity. A moisture budget analysis shows that the direct moisture effect and monsoon weakening, both tied to the ambient cooling and resulting circulation changes, and feedbacks by vertical circulation and evaporation augment the rainfall reduction. Cooling over the Tropical North Atlantic in response to the prescribed extratropical cooling also augments the Sahel drying. Taken together, they suggest a thermodynamic pathway for the teleconnection. The teleconnection may also be applicable to understanding the North Atlantic influence on Sahel rainfall over the twentieth century.

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This research is supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF AGS-1143329 and NSF EAR-0909195). The authors would like to thank Inez Fung, Shih-Yu Lee, Andrew Friedman and Ching-Yee Chang for useful and enlightening discussions. YL thanks Ivana Cvijanovic for helping design the GCM simulation, Alexandra Jonko for assistance with using the radiative kernel technique, Andrew Friedman and Meghan Thurlow for editing the manuscript for grammar and usage. All reanalysis data are provided by the NOAA/OAR/ESRL PSD, Boulder, Colorado, USA, at

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Correspondence to Yuwei Liu.

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Liu, Y., Chiang, J.C.H., Chou, C. et al. Atmospheric teleconnection mechanisms of extratropical North Atlantic SST influence on Sahel rainfall. Clim Dyn 43, 2797–2811 (2014).

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  • North Atlantic cooling
  • Sahel rainfall
  • Atmospheric teleconnection
  • Monsoon