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NATURE CLIMATE CHANGE | VOL 1 | JULY 2011 | www.nature.

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he Sahel sufered a persistent and
dramatic drying trend during the
latter part of the twentieth century:
a 40% decline in rainfall over 50years.
At its culmination, during the 1970s and
1980s, the scale of the drought was so
unusual that researchers suggested it might
be man-made. At frst, it was thought that
local deforestation and overgrazing were
to blame
. But later, observational
studies absolved local land
use and frmly linked the drying trend to
changes in sea surface temperatures. Te
underlying causes of the drought remain
uncertain, however. Was it the result of
human activities or simply part of natural
climate variability? Writing in Journal of
Climate, Duncan Ackerley and colleagues

report that emissions of sulphate aerosols
from industrialized countries bear most of
the blame.
Te semi-arid grasslands of the Sahel
lie at the southern edge of the Sahara
Desert, extending thousands of kilometres
from Senegal in the west to Sudan in the
east. Te dry season here lasts for nine
months, with rainfall concentrated in
heavy downpours during July, August and
September. Te local population depends
heavily on this rainfall for success of its
harvest and survival of cattle, but the rains
vary tremendously, both from year to year
and on decadal timescales. Temperature
changes in every ocean basin afect the rains,
with El Nio and La Nia events in the
Pacifc, warming in the Indian Ocean, and
the cross-equatorial gradient in the tropical
Atlantic all known to play a role. Te specifc
pattern associated with decadal-scale
drying is a gradient between the Northern
and Southern hemispheres
, with colder
conditions in northern oceans than southern
ones. Tis pattern has been associated with a
natural oscillation in the deep circulation of
the Atlantic Ocean
, but can also be caused
by anthropogenicemissions of sulphate
Sulphate aerosols are produced through
the combustion of fossil fuels. Tey remain
in the lower atmosphere for about a
week, before being washed out by rain or
deposited on the Earths surface through a
process known as dry deposition. A week
is not long enough for the particles to be
distributed evenly around the world, so
the atmospheric burden is greatest close
to the sources of emissions: Europe, North
America, and, more recently, Asia. Aerosols
have a direct efect on climate cooling the
Earths surface by scattering sunlight away
from it. Tey also increase the brightness
and longevity of clouds by increasing the
number, but reducing the size, of water
droplets within them. Tese indirect efects
also have a cooling efect, by increasing the
amount of sunlight that clouds refect back
into space.
Ackerley and colleagues
assess the
underlying causes of changes in Sahel
rainfall using numerical climate models
that simulate the behaviour of sulphur in
the atmosphere, including reactions with
other chemical species, the formation and
transport of aerosols, and their efect on
cloud droplets. In one set of experiments,
the team simulated what the equilibrium
global climate would be if it was afected
by natural factors alone and compared
this with a simulation of what it would
look like if it was afected by greenhouse-
gas concentrations and aerosol emissions
typical of the 1980s as well as natural factors.
Consistent with earlier studies
, the results
A man-made drought
The causes of the severe drought in the Sahel in the 1970s and 1980s are uncertain. Now a study provides the rmest
evidence so far that emissions of aerosols from industrialized countries played a signicant role, but other forcings
cannot be ruled out yet.
Michela Biasutti
180 150 W 120 W 90 W 60 W 30 W 0 30 E 60 E 90 E 120 E 150 E
20 S
40 S
40 N
20 N
0 0.25 0.25 0.5 0.5 0.75 0.75 1 1
100 80 60 40 20 20 40 60 80 100 0
Rainfall (mm per month)


Sea surface temperature (C)
Longitude ()
Figure 1 | Causes of the twentieth-century drying trend in the Sahel. An increase in the concentration of
sulphate aerosols over the Northern Hemisphere between 1940and 1985 (grey contour lines in mg of
sulphate) cooled sea surface temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere, creating an inter-hemispheric
thermal gradient (blue and orange hues). Ackerley and colleagues
provide the most compelling evidence
so far that this gradient contributed to the decline in Sahel rainfall observed over the same period (brown
and green hues). The change in rainfall is calculated from the linear trend in average monthly rainfall over
July to September between 1940and 1985; the change in sea surface temperatures is calculated from the
linear trend in annual average data over the same period; and the change in aerosol burden is calculated
as the diference in four-year averages centred on 1940and 1985. Rainfall data are from the University
of East Anglia Climate Research Unit TS3p0 dataset; aerosol data are from the coupled model HadCM3
output (provided by Ben Booth at the Hadley Centre, Exeter, UK); sea surface temperature data are from
the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Climatic Data Center (NCDC)
ERSST version3b dataset.
2011 Macmillan Publishers Limited. All rights reserved
news & views
confrm that, together, the man-made
factors cause substantial drying in the Sahel.
Te team also found that the amount
of drying depends on the strength of the
inter-hemispheric sea surface temperature
gradient. Tis gradient is enhanced by
Northern Hemisphere aerosol emissions
but, in their model, it is suppressed by rising
greenhouse-gas concentrations, so the
drying efect on the Sahel is strongest when
the sulphate aerosols act in isolation.
Te study moves beyond previous work
on the causes of drought in the Sahel by
testing the sensitivity of these fndings to the
formulation of the model used to generate
them. Te researchers do this by exploiting
a remarkable set of simulations of the way
in which the climate system responds to
changes in greenhouse-gas concentrations
and aerosol emissions over time. Drawing
on the computer power of volunteers from
around the world, the
initiative has run thousands of climate
model simulations, each of which represents
aspects of the climate system from the
chemistry of the atmosphere to cloud
microphysics in a slightly diferent way.
Together, these simulations are known as
a perturbed-physics ensemble and can
be used to explore whether climate trends
simulated by a parent model are robust to
small changes in the way climate processes
are represented.
As part of this initiative, over 1,500
model runs were forced by historic
emissions of greenhouse gases and sulphate
aerosols. Te vast majority of these
simulations produced drought in the Sahel,
with the magnitude of the drying matching
the trend observed between 1940and 1980
quite well. Another set of more than 500
simulations was forced by the same rise
in greenhouse-gas concentrations, but a
weaker forcing by Northern Hemisphere
aerosols. Tese simulations showed no
drying trend in the Sahel, confrming that
the main cause of the drought was aerosol
emissions from industrialized countries.
Tey also showed that this result is robust
to small changes in the way in which
climate processes are represented in the
Te teams results provide convincing
evidence that sulphate aerosol emissions
contributed to the decline in rainfall in the
Sahel between 1940and 1980. Tis is not
the end of the story, however. For one thing,
the ensembles appear to underestimate the
natural variability in Sahel rainfall, reducing
confdence in the teams estimate of the
relative roles of anthropogenic forcing and
natural variability in determining rainfall
anomalies. Also, the parent version of the
model that the team uses (and possibly
the perturbed-physics ensemble too)
simulates a wetter Sahel in response to
rising greenhouse-gas concentrations, when
other coupled models do the opposite and
accordingly attribute the twentieth-century
drought to emissions of both aerosols
and greenhouse gases
. Furthermore, the
simulations do not include feedbacks
involving changes in vegetation and dust,
which are likely to be important
It might be possible to distinguish
the responses of rainfall in the Sahel
to greenhouse gases and to aerosols by
analysing their seasonal signatures: models
indicate that the efect of aerosols is
strongest in summer, whereas greenhouse
gases infuence the timing of the rains
decreasing precipitation during spring
and increasing it during autumn. But
this analysis, along with a more realistic
representation of natural variability,
vegetation dynamics and dust processes
must wait for future generations of
Despite its limitations, the work of
Ackerley and colleagues
provides the
frmest evidence yet that sulphate aerosol
emissions from Europe and North America
contributed to the devastating droughts of
the 1970s and 1980s. As sulphate aerosol
burdens grow in Asia, South America
and other emerging economies, we can
expect that regional rainfall patterns will
be modifed in ways that could either
exacerbate or mitigate the efects of global
warming. As the Sahel drought teaches us,
preparing for climate change requires that
we understand the interplay of global and
regional anthropogenic forcings.
Michela Biasutti is at the Lamont-Doherty Earth
Observatory, ColumbiaUniversity, 61 Route 9W,
PO Box1000, Palisades,New York10964-8000, USA.
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limate change negotiations collapsed
in Copenhagen 18 months ago in
part because countries that might
have signed up to a global agreement
worried that others would be able to
exaggerate their progress in reducing
emissions (Fig.1). In essence, it would
be possible to cheat against negotiated
commitments without the threat of
detection. Implementing the infrastructure
needed to monitor and verify emissions
at the national level does not ofer a
practical solution to this sticking point,
because it would be both difcult and
. Writing in Philosophical
Transactions of the Royal Society A,
Adam Durant and colleagues
argue that
reducing uncertainties in the global carbon
balance would be a relatively cheap and
easy way of checking reported emissions,
potentially saving billions of dollars in
climate-related damages by encouraging
countries to comply with their emission-
It is well known that the ability to
verify reported emissions is essential for
bringing nations on board for a legally
Opportunities from uncertainties
The inability to verify nations reported progress towards emission-reduction commitments is a stumbling block in
climate change negotiations. Narrowing uncertainties in the global carbon cycle could help overcome this obstacle.
Gary W. Yohe
2011 Macmillan Publishers Limited. All rights reserved