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The 1997-98 summer rainfall season in southern Africa. Part II: model simulations and coupled model forecasts

Lyon, Bradfield; Mason, Simon J.

This is the second of a two-part investigation of rainfall in southern Africa during the strong El Nino of 1997/98. In Part I it was shown that widespread drought in southern Africa, typical of past El Nino events occurring between 1950 and 2000, generally failed to materialize during the 1997/98 El Nino, most notably during January–March (JFM) 1998. Here output from three atmospheric general circulation models (AGCMs) forced with observed sea surface temperatures (SSTs) and seasonal forecasts from three coupled models are examined to see to what extent conditions in JFM 1998 could have potentially been anticipated.

All three AGCMs generated widespread drought conditions across southern Africa, similar to those during past El Nino events, and did a generally poor job in generating the observed rainfall and atmospheric circulation anomaly patterns, particularly over the eastern and southern Indian Ocean. In contrast, two of the three coupled models showed a higher probability of wetter conditions in JFM 1998 than for past El Nino events, with an enhanced moisture flux from the Indian Ocean, as was observed. However, neither the AGCMs nor the coupled models generated anomalous stationary wave patterns consistent with observations over the South Atlantic and Pacific. The failure of any of the models to reproduce an enhanced Angola low (favoring rainfall) associated with an anomalous wave train in this region suggests that the coupled models that did indicate wetter conditions in JFM 1998 compared to previous El Nino episodes may have done so, at least partially, for the wrong reasons. The general inability of the climate models used in this study to generate key features of the seasonal climate over southern Africa in JFM 1998 suggests that internal atmospheric variability contributed to the observed rainfall and circulation patterns that year. With the caveat that current climate models may not properly respond to SST boundary forcing important to simulating southern Africa climate, this study finds that the JFM 1998 rainfall in southern Africa may have been largely unpredictable on seasonal time scales.

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Also Published In

Journal of Climate

More About This Work

Academic Units
International Research Institute for Climate and Society
Published Here
March 13, 2020