Climate change has already made a difference to life in the West African Sahel, the arid belt of land stretching from the Atlantic to the Red Sea which separates the Sahara desert from the African savanna. It has made catastrophic storms three times more frequent.
And, according to a new study in the journal Nature, "Frequency of extreme Sahelian storms tripled since 1982 in satellite observations" Sahel storms are among the most powerful on the planet. In 2009, one vast downpour deposited 263mm of rain over Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, claiming eight lives, flooding half the city and forcing 150,000 people out of their homes.
Researchers believe the pattern of thunderstorms known as mesoscale convective systems will increase in frequency as global temperatures rise, as a consequence of increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, in turn driven by worldwide use of fossil fuels as sources of energy.
Mesoscale convective systems are big, bad and very cold columns of thunderous cloud: up to 16km high, covering an area of 25,000 square kilometres, and with temperatures at the highest altitude as low as minus 40°C.
Between 1986 and 2005, Burkina Faso registered floods at a rate of little more than one a year. In the 11 years between 2006 and 2016, it was hit by 55 flood events
Climate scientists have been warning for three decades that global warming will be accompanied by an increase in “extreme” events: in particular drought, flood, heat wave and tropical cyclone.
Global warming has already been observed in the Sahel, and the consequences have not necessarily been bad: overall, precipitation has increased, and farmers have benefited, although in a dryland region south of the Sahara where people have endured a 2,000-year history of periodic drought, famine remains a constant hazard.
And now, so do massive downpours of rain: the Sahel storms. British and French scientists examined 35 years of satellite data and the rain gauges in the region to identify a rise in extreme daily rainfall totals. They found 85% of extreme rainfall cases coincided with satellite records of a passing mesoscale convection system.
They also examined the pattern of temperatures over the region and found that although the annual average temperatures have risen, the so-called “wet season” temperatures have remained steady. That is, locally warmer conditions alone have not brought more rainfall.
“Global warming is expected to produce more intense storms, but we were shocked to see the speed of changes taking place in this region of Africa”
Instead, they blame man-made global warming which has changed wind and rain conditions, and this will go on strengthening during this century, “suggesting the Sahel will experience particularly marked increases in extreme rain,” they conclude.
“Global warming is expected to produce more intense storms, but we were shocked to see the speed of changes taking place in this region of Africa,” said Christopher Taylor, a meteorologist at the UK’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, who led the study.
His co-author Douglas Parker, professor of meteorology at the University of Leeds in the UK, said: “African storms are highly organised meteorological engines, whose currents extract water from the air to produce torrential rain.
“We have seen these engines becoming more efficient over recent decades, with resulting increases in the frequency of hazardous events.” – Climate News Network
Tim Radford, a founding editor of Climate News Network, worked for The Guardian for 32 years, for most of that time as science editor. He has been covering climate change since 1988.