On the cause of the correlation between West African dust outbreaks and Sahelian rainfall

Thursday, 18 December 2014
Amato T Evan, Scripps Institute of Oceanography, La Jolla, CA, United States and Cyrille Flamant, LATMOS Laboratoire Atmosphères, Milieux, Observations Spatiales, Paris Cedex 05, France
A large body of work has shown, using both in-situ data and remote sensing products, that there is a negative correlation between Sahelian rainfall and African dust outbreaks that traverse the tropical Atlantic. One theory for this relationship is that drying out of the Sahel results in the activation of new dust sources. However, there is no direct evidence to support this theory, nor has any modeling study conclusively shown this to be the case. Another theory is that changes in the regional circulation associated with wet and dry periods of the Sahel results in this inverse proportionality between dust and rainfall. A new modeling study has provided compelling evidence to show that this latter theory may be closer to the truth. Here we show that the recent trends in dust from western Africa can be explained by examining changes in surface winds over source regions near the Air, Adrar, and Ouaddai mountains, and the Bodélé depression. Our analysis shows that the recent trends in dust are due to a slow down of the surface winds over the Air and Adrar source regions, and that this is a result of the simultaneous intensification of the low-level circulation of the Sahara Heat Low. Thus, coupling of Sahel rainfall and the Sahara Heat Low results in the correlation between dust and Sahel drought. Furthermore, we estimate future changes in dust from climate models via analysis of modeled changes in wind speeds over these regions. We find that one model in the Fifth Phase Coupled Model Intercomparison Project, the GFDL-CM3, accurately represents historical changes in wind speeds over these key source regions, and that in future scenarios this model shows a large and statistically significant increase in surface windspeeds over the Bodélé, suggesting an increase in African dust emission throughout the 21st Century.