Solving the Puzzle: Drought in Central Africa

Dr. Liming Zhou and students point to a map which displays their research about sea surface temperature variability and its effects on drought in the Congo. Photographer: Paul Miller

The Congo. The name alone evokes images of a lush jungle filled with mountain gorillas, bonobos, okapis and some 12,000 unique species that call the forest home.

The Congo river, immortalized in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, resembles “an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land.”

But the Congo basin faces a threat that could irrevocably change the second largest rainforest in the world: an extended drying period that has reduced the jungle canopy over the last 17 years. Should the drying trend continue, it might alter the composition and structure of the Congo rainforest, affecting its biodiversity and carbon storage.

At the University at Albany, a team of researchers led by Associate Professor of Atmospheric Sciences Liming Zhou has been studying this trend. They have worked with NASA to track the reduction of the Congo forest cover, and get a better picture of the impact of the drought. Now, Zhou and his team are grappling with the “why” — what environmental factors are at work to cause the shifting precipitation models.

The culprit? The long-term drought during April, May and June over Central Equatorial Africa may reflect the large-scale response of the atmosphere to tropical sea surface temperature (SST) variations, according to Zhou.

“The drought results primarily from SST variations over Indo-Pacific associated with the enhanced and westward-extended tropical Walker circulation (the large-scale atmospheric east-west equatorial circulation),” said Zhou. “These changes tend to induce subsidence and decrease convection over the Congo Basin, which lead to the reduction in low-level moisture transport and rainfall across the area.”

What remains to be determined is if these changes are the result of natural variability or global warming due to human activities.

Appearing in Environmental Research Letters, Zhou’s team states that these results reinforce the notion that tropical SSTs have large impacts on rainfall over equatorial Africa. The authors argue that more work needs to be done to further distinguish the contribution of SSTs changes (such as a La Niña-like pattern and Indian Ocean warming) due to natural variability, or ‘anthropological forcing’ such as greenhouse gases or aerosol pollution.

“The Congo rainforest has experienced a long-term drying trend since the 1990s while similar droughts are absent in other tropical rainforests,” said Zhou. “Tropical rainforests have the potential to modulate regional and global climate via various feedbacks. Hence, understanding the nature and cause of this drought and assessing its impacts on the forests are of significant societal, economic and environmental importance.”
Photo courtesy of World Wildlife Fund.

Home to as many as 10,000 species of tropical plants, including 30 percent that are unique to the region, the Congo basin is teeming with life. Endangered species such as forest elephants, chimpanzees, bonobos, and lowland and mountain gorillas inhabit the lush forests. According to the World Wildlife Fund, about 400 other species of mammals, 1,000 species of birds and 700 species of fish can also be found in the Congolese rainforest.

Oceanic conditions, especially SSTs, have been highlighted as the driver for rainfall variations over Africa and other regions. SSTs modulate the rainfall variability not only via their direct and indirect impacts on atmospheric circulation, but also via their effects on moisture transport.

Over the long term, the drying trend is likely associated with rapid warming in the Indian Ocean and western Pacific Warm Pool. Tropical SSTs in other regions also have experienced obvious changes since 1979, with significant warming from the Atlantic to the western Pacific, and cooling in the central and eastern Pacific. These changes contribute to regional climate change through atmospheric ‘teleconnections’ (anomalies related to each other at large distances, typically thousands of kilometers). Even from halfway around the world, the Pacific Ocean has an indirect influence on African rainfall, as well as over the continent. But it remains to be seen if these changes are the result of human activity or internal variability.

Patterns of rainfall change over Central Equatorial Africa.

“The changes in Pacific SSTs are likely due to natural multi-decadal variability. In contrast, the tropical Indian Ocean SST warming may result from global warming due mostly to human activities,” said Dr. Wenjian Hua, lead author of the study and a postdoctoral fellow under the supervising of Prof. Zhou at Albany. “Whether the recent La Niña-like SST pattern is externally forced or internal variability is still unclear.”

The study is funded by the National Science Foundation. Other contributors to this research include Haishan Chen at Nanjing University of Information Science & Technology in China, Sharon E. Nicholson at Florida State University, and two UAlbany graduate students, Ajay Raghavendra and Yan Jiang.

Featuring one of the largest graduate programs of its kind in the nation, UAlbany’s Department of Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences tackles some of the most pressing scientific issues of the 21st century.

As the impact of climate change and extreme weather is felt across the globe, there has never been a more important time to train atmospheric and environmental scientists who can address these challenges. With their broad portfolio of research interests, the Department of Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences faculty offer students opportunities to work with world-class researchers on projects inspired by some of the most pressing questions and challenges facing humankind.

Dr. Liming Zhou and his team in front of a Sea Surface Temperature Map. Photo Paul Miller

The Department’s main areas of research and study include synoptic-dynamic meteorology, severe weather, climate variability and change (including past, present and future), hydrometeorology, theoretical meteorology (spanning planetary through convective scales), and tropical meteorology including hurricanes and monsoons.

Whether it is studying the structure of hurricanes, measuring the effectiveness of extreme weather prediction models, or exploring the impacts of climate variability and change this research has a far-reaching impact on industry, public policy, and the breadth of understanding of the world around us.