Weakening and shifting of the Saharan shallow meridional circulation during wet years of the West African monsoon


The correlation between increased Sahel rainfall and reduced Saharan surface pressure is well established in observations and global climate models, and has been used to imply that increased Sahel rainfall is caused by a stronger shallow meridional circulation (SMC) over the Sahara. This study uses two atmospheric reanalyses to examine interannual variability of Sahel rainfall and the Saharan SMC, which consists of northward near-surface flow across the Sahel into the Sahara and southward flow near 700 hPa out of the Sahara. During wet Sahel years, the Saharan SMC shifts poleward, producing a drop in low-level geopotential and surface pressure over the Sahara. Statistically removing the effect of the poleward shift from the low-level geopotential eliminates significant correlations between this geopotential and Sahel precipitation. As the Saharan SMC shifts poleward, its mid-tropospheric divergent outflow decreases, indicating a weakening of its overturning mass flux. The poleward shift and weakening of the Saharan SMC during wet Sahel years is reproduced in an idealized model of West Africa; a wide range of imposed sea surface temperature and land surface albedo perturbations in this model produce a much larger range of SMC variations that nevertheless have similar quantitative associations with Sahel rainfall as in the reanalyses. These results disprove the idea that enhanced Sahel rainfall is caused by strengthening of the Saharan SMC. Instead, these results are consistent with the hypothesis that the a stronger SMC inhibits Sahel rainfall, perhaps by advecting midtropospheric warm and dry air into the precipitation maximum.

Journal of Climate