Alessandra Giannini explains her latest research into the drivers of climate trends in Africa's Sahel.
We propose a re-interpretation of the oceanic influence on the climate of the African Sahel that is consistent across observations, 20th century simulations and 21st century projections, and that resolves the uncertainty in projections of precipitation change in this region: continued warming of the global tropical oceans increases the threshold for convection, potentially drying tropical land, but this 'upped ante' can be met if sufficient moisture is supplied in monsoon flow. In this framework, the reversal to warming of the subtropical North Atlantic, which is now out-pacing warming of the global tropical oceans, provides that moisture, and explains the partial recovery in precipitation since persistent drought in the 1970s and 1980s. We find this recovery to result from increases in daily rainfall intensity, rather than in frequency, most evidently so in Senegal, the westernmost among the three Sahelian countries analyzed. Continuation of these observed trends is consistent with projections for an overall wetter Sahel, but more variable precipitation on all time scales, from intra-seasonal to multi-decadal.