Climatic Change

, Volume 134, Issue 4, pp 605–619 | Cite as

Seasonal rainfall variability in southeast Africa during the nineteenth century reconstructed from documentary sources

  • David J. NashEmail author
  • Kathleen Pribyl
  • Jørgen Klein
  • Raphael Neukom
  • Georgina H. Endfield
  • George C. D. Adamson
  • Dominic R. Kniveton


Analyses of historical patterns of rainfall variability are essential for understanding long-term changes in precipitation timing and distribution. Focussing on former Natal and Zululand (now KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa), this study presents the first combined annual and seasonal reconstruction of rainfall variability over southeast Africa for the 19th century. Analyses of documentary sources, including newspapers and colonial and missionary materials, indicate that the region was affected by severe or multi-year drought on eight occasions between 1836 and 1900 (the rainy seasons of 1836–38, 1861–63, 1865–66, 1868–70, 1876–79, 1883–85, 1886–90 and 1895–1900). Six severe or multi-year wet periods are also identified (1847–49, 1854–57, 1863–65, 1879–81, 1890–91 and 1892–94). The timing of these events agrees well with independent reconstructions of 19th century rainfall for other parts of the southern African summer rainfall zone (SRZ), suggesting subcontinental scale variability. Our results indicate that the relationship between El Niño and rainfall in southeast Africa was relatively stable, at least for the latter half of the 19th century. El Niño conditions appear to have had a more consistent modulating effect upon rainfall during the 19th century than La Niña. The rainfall chronology from this study is combined with other annually-resolved palaeoclimate records from mainland southern Africa and surrounding oceans as part of a multi-proxy rainfall reconstruction for the SRZ. This reconstruction confirms (i) the long-term importance of ENSO and Indian Ocean SSTs for modulating regional rainfall; and (ii) that summer precipitation has been declining progressively over the last 200 years.


Rainfall Variability Southern Oscillation Index Southern Annular Mode Documentary Source Southern Annular Mode Index 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



This research was funded by Leverhulme Trust Research Project Grant number F/00 504/D. We extend our thanks to the three expert reviewers, to the archivists for access to collections of materials, and to Stan Stanier for designing the ENSOAfrica database used for the storage of documentary evidence. RN is funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (grant PZ00P2_154802).

Supplementary material

10584_2015_1550_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (781 kb)
ESM 1 (PDF 780 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • David J. Nash
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  • Kathleen Pribyl
    • 1
  • Jørgen Klein
    • 3
  • Raphael Neukom
    • 4
  • Georgina H. Endfield
    • 5
  • George C. D. Adamson
    • 6
  • Dominic R. Kniveton
    • 7
  1. 1.School of Environment and TechnologyUniversity of BrightonBrightonUK
  2. 2.School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental StudiesUniversity of the WitwatersrandWitsSouth Africa
  3. 3.Department of Social SciencesHedmark University CollegeHamarNorway
  4. 4.Oeschger Centre for Climate Change Research and Institute of GeographyUniversity of BernBernSwitzerland
  5. 5.School of GeographyUniversity of NottinghamNottinghamUK
  6. 6.Department of GeographyKing’s College LondonLondonUK
  7. 7.School of Global StudiesUniversity of SussexBrightonUK

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