Impact of volcanic aerosol hemispheric symmetry on Sahel rainfall

Tess W.P. Jacobson, Wenchang Yang, Gabriel A. Vecchi, Larry W. Horowitz

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


The semi-arid African Sahel region is highly sensitive to changes in monsoon precipitation, as much of the region’s workforce is employed in the agricultural industry (Hamro-Drotz and Programme 2011). Thus, studying the response of rainfall and aridity in this region to radiative perturbations is a matter of pressing humanitarian relevance. In addition, there is evidence to suggest that spatially asymmetric volcanic aerosols produce different hydroclimatic responses based on their hemispheric symmetry, both globally and in the Sahel. We use two different climate models, GFDL’s FLOR model (Vecchi et al. in J Clim 27(21):7994–8016, 2014) and NCAR’s CESM 1.1 model (Otto-Bliesner et al. in Bull Am Meteorol Soc 97(5):735–754, 2016), to characterize the response of rainfall in the Sahel to large volcanic eruptions based on the meridional symmetry of the volcanic eruptions. We find that in both the FLOR experiments simulating three large twentieth century eruptions and in the CESM Last Millennium Ensemble simulations of 46 historic volcanic eruptions, asymmetric Northern Hemisphere cooling causes a subsequent drying response in the Sahel, and Southern Hemisphere cooling causes a wetting, or “greening” response. Symmetric volcanic eruptions have a relatively small effect on rainfall in the Sahel. We also find that the FLOR results show a consistent response in the annual rainfall cycle in the Sahel for all three of the eruptions analyzed, with a reduction in rainfall in early summer followed by an increased rainfall in late summer. The annual cycle response of rainfall in the Sahel from the CESM experiments is different, in that the SH eruptions cause a rainfall maximum in August, NH eruptions cause a rainfall minimum in September, and symmetric eruptions show a slight increase in August and a decrease in October. Our results highlight the need for accurate meridional structures in historic volcanic forcing data used for climate models as well as the need for further study on regional effects of hemispherically asymmetric radiative forcing, especially as they might pertain to aerosol geoengineering.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1733-1758
Number of pages26
JournalClimate Dynamics
Issue number7-8
StatePublished - Oct 1 2020

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Atmospheric Science


  • ITCZ
  • Precipitation
  • Sahel
  • Stratospheric Aerosols
  • Volcanic eruptions


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