Impact of Desert Dust Radiative Forcing on Sahel Precipitation – A New Research Paper

A valuable new paper has appeared on the role of dust within the climate system. A significant portion of this dust results from human mismanagement of semi-arid landscapes (e.g. see and see). The paper is

Yoshioka, M., N.M. Mahowald, A.J. Conley, W.D. Collins, D.W. Fillmore, C.S. Zender, and D.B. Coleman, 2007: Impact of Desert Dust Radiative Forcing on Sahel Precipitation: Relative Importance of Dust Compared to Sea Surface Temperature Variations, Vegetation Changes, and Greenhouse Gas Warming. J. Climate, 20, 1445–1467.

The abstract reads,

“The role of direct radiative forcing of desert dust aerosol in the change from wet to dry climate observed in the African Sahel region in the last half of the twentieth century is investigated using simulations with an atmospheric general circulation model. The model simulations are conducted either forced by the observed sea surface temperature (SST) or coupled with the interactive SST using the Slab Ocean Model (SOM). The simulation model uses dust that is less absorbing in the solar wavelengths and has larger particle sizes than other simulation studies. As a result, simulations show less shortwave absorption within the atmosphere and larger longwave radiative forcing by dust. Simulations using SOM show reduced precipitation over the intertropical convergence zone (ITCZ) including the Sahel region and increased precipitation south of the ITCZ when dust radiative forcing is included. In SST-forced simulations, on the other hand, significant precipitation changes are restricted to over North Africa. These changes are considered to be due to the cooling of global tropical oceans as well as the cooling of the troposphere over North Africa in response to dust radiative forcing. The model simulation of dust cannot capture the magnitude of the observed increase of desert dust when allowing dust to respond to changes in simulated climate, even including changes in vegetation, similar to previous studies. If the model is forced to capture observed changes in desert dust, the direct radiative forcing by the increase of North African dust can explain up to 30% of the observed precipitation reduction in the Sahel between wet and dry periods. A large part of this effect comes through atmospheric forcing of dust, and dust forcing on the Atlantic Ocean SST appears to have a smaller impact. The changes in the North and South Atlantic SSTs may account for up to 50% of the Sahel precipitation reduction. Vegetation loss in the Sahel region may explain about 10% of the observed drying, but this effect is statistically insignificant because of the small number of years in the simulation. Greenhouse gas warming seems to have an impact to increase Sahel precipitation that is opposite to the observed change. Although the estimated values of impacts are likely to be model dependent, analyses suggest the importance of direct radiative forcing of dust and feedbacks in modulating Sahel precipitation.”

Excepts from the paper read,

“Our model simulations suggest that radiative forcing of dust acts to reduce the global average precipitation.”


“These results are sensitive to the models and methodologies that are used. However, the results are important because they show that the direct radiative forcing of dust has played a role in the observed
droughts in the Sahel comparable to the roles played by the sea surface temperatures and vegetation, which have been studied extensively. These results also provide a mechanism whereby drought in the Sahel region can cause increased dust, which then feedbacks to cause a further precipitation reduction.”

This paper further supports the perspective emphasized in the 2005 National Research Council report that we need to move beyond the radiative forcing of CO2 as the dominate human effect on the climate system.

National Research Council, 2005: Radiative forcing of climate change: Expanding the concept and addressing uncertainties. Committee on Radiative Forcing Effects on Climate Change, Climate Research Committee, Board on Atmospheric Sciences and Climate, Division on Earth and Life Studies, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 208 pp.

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