The past, present and future of African dust

Abstract : African dust emission and transport exhibits variability on diurnal to decadal timescales and is known to influence processes such as Amazon productivity, Atlantic climate modes, regional atmospheric composition and radiative balance and precipitation in the Sahel. To elucidate the role of African dust in the climate system, it is necessary to understand the factors governing its emission and transport. However, African dust is correlated with seemingly disparate atmospheric phenomena, including the El Niño/Southern Oscillation, the North Atlantic Oscillation, the meridional position of the intertropical convergence zone, Sahelian rainfall8 and surface temperatures over the Sahara Desert, all of which obfuscate the connection between dust and climate. Here we show that the surface wind field responsible for most of the variability in North African dust emission reflects the topography of the Sahara, owing to orographic acceleration of the surface flow. As such, the correlations between dust and various climate phenomena probably arise from the projection of the winds associated with these phenomena onto an orographically controlled pattern of wind variability. A 161-year time series of dust from 1851 to 2011, created by projecting this wind field pattern onto surface winds from a historical reanalysis, suggests that the highest concentrations of dust occurred from the 1910s to the 1940s and the 1970s to the 1980s, and that there have been three periods of persistent anomalously low dust concentrations—in the 1860s, 1950s and 2000s. Projections of the wind pattern onto climate models give a statistically significant downward trend in African dust emission and transport as greenhouse gas concentrations increase over the twenty-first century, potentially associated with a slow-down of the tropical circulation. Such a dust feedback, which is not represented in climate models, may be of benefit to human and ecosystem health in West Africa via improved air quality and increased rainfall6. This feedback may also enhance warming of the tropical North Atlantic, which would make the basin more suitable for hurricane formation and growth.
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Submitted on : Wednesday, March 30, 2016 - 2:22:45 PM
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Amato T. Evan, Cyrille Flamant, Marco Gaetani, Françoise Guichard. The past, present and future of African dust. Nature, Nature Publishing Group, 2016, 531 (7595), pp.493-495. ⟨10.1038/nature17149⟩. ⟨insu-01295141⟩

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