New study finds that global warming could trigger a century-long drought in West Africa
New study finds that global warming could trigger a century-long drought in West AfricaApril 16, 2009Judy Holmesjlholmes@syr.edu
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A team of scientists from several major research universities, including Syracuse University, has discovered that sub-Saharan West Africa has been plagued by droughts much more severe than the infamous Sahel drought of the 1970s and 1980s, which killed more than 100,000 people. The research, reported in the April 17 issue of the journal Science, also suggests that rising global temperatures could provide the conditions needed to trigger a prolonged, severe drought that could devastate the region.
Using data collected from samples of sediment cores extracted from the basin of Lake Bosumtwi in Ghana, the scientists developed the first, almost year-by-year record of the last 3,000 years of West African climate. During that period, droughts lasting 30-60 years were common. Surprisingly, however, these decades-long droughts were dwarfed by much more severe droughts lasting three to four times as long-more than a century. Their findings are published in the study “Atlantic Forcing of Persistent Drought in West Africa.”
“What’s disconcerting about this record is that it suggests that the most recent drought was relatively minor in the context of the West African drought history,” says first author Timothy M. Shanahan, assistant professor of geosciences at the University of Texas at Austin. “If we were to switch into one of these century-scale patterns of drought, it would be a lot more severe, and it would be very difficult for people to adjust to the change.”
Shanahan conducted the research while he was a doctoral student at the University of Arizona. He is part of a research team that includes SU earth sciences professor Christopher Scholz and geosciences professor Jonathan Overpeck of the University of Arizona. Scholz and Overpeck are lead investigators on a large-scale study of Lake Bosumtwi, funded by the National Science Foundation and the International Continental Scientific Drilling Program.
Lake Bosumtwi formed 1.1 million years ago when a meteor several times the size of the Carrier Dome crashed into the Earth’s surface. The lake has no natural outlets. It fills and dries with changes in precipitation and in the tropical climate. As a result, the sediment below the lake, deposited over the past million years by inflowing streams, contains some of the best-preserved records of climate change in the tropics.
“The lake is one of the best sites in the world for the study of tropical climate,” Scholz says. “To understand the current global climate, we need to have records of the climate conditions that existed in the past.”
Ten years ago, Scholz designed a special boat and scientific equipment to explore the surface below Lake Bosumtwi. The boat was constructed in modules and shipped to Africa, where it was reassembled. During the early expeditions, the research team first gathered seismic reflection data that enabled its members to initially create maps of the lake’s subsurface and then collected cores of undisturbed lake mud to analyze for detailed climate changes.
The geophysical data collected from the seismic maps suggested the lake’s water levels significantly fluctuated during the past 2,500-3,000 years. Shanahan’s study combines the early findings with a detailed study of sediment cores he collected on subsequent expeditions. The result is a detailed look at geological records of the lake level and other climate indicators, including submerged forests, which grew around the lake during past droughts when the lake dried up for hundreds of years.
The new findings suggest that changes in sea surface temperatures of the Atlantic Ocean have played a key role in sustaining drought over the sub-Saharan region for decades to centuries. The findings support other recent research using climate models. On 30- to 60-year intervals, sustained periods of wet and dry conditions appear to be directly linked to a hypothesized mode of climate variability termed the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation. Because long, high-resolution records of ancient climate from the Atlantic are sparse, scientists had questioned the existence of such a mode.
“This paper provides a long-term context suggesting that the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation actually exists,” Shanahan says. “Our rainfall records are strongly related to these really distant sea surface temperature reconstructions, at least on this multidecadal time scale. It suggests that the rainfall patterns are being generated by the sea surface temperature patterns and not by some other influence.”
Armed with this new information, scientists who create climate models will be better equipped to sort out some of the conflicting climate predictions for West Africa. Some climate models have forecast wetter conditions for West Africa, while others have forecast drier conditions. The results of this study highlight the susceptibility of this system to sustained dry conditions and suggest that climate records from the past 100 years do not capture the severity of natural droughts that have been common in the sub-Sahara over the last 3,000 years.
“The study suggests that rising air surface temperatures could cause the climate pattern in sub-Saharan West Africa to revert back to this century-scale drought mode without too much difficulty,” Scholz says. “The drought that occurred 30 years ago in the region would be dwarfed by the kind of prolonged, decades-long drought that has occurred during the past few thousand years.”
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