Seasonal cycle and interannual variability of the Sahelian rainfall at hydrological scales



[1] Sahelian rainfall is characterized both by a strong interannual variability and by periods of long-lasting droughts, such as the years 1970–1997. The controlling factors of this variability have been the subject of a significant amount of research, but most of this research is carried out using low-resolution averages, typically, monthly to seasonal in time and over 5° × 5° grid boxes (or larger) in space. This paper is an attempt at characterizing the Sahelian rainfall regime at finer scales, with the objective of establishing links between the seasonal cycle and the interannual variability. To that end, high space-time resolution data sets are analyzed. One is composed of around three hundred daily rain gauges covering a 1,700,000 km2 area for the period 1951–1990. The second is a set of full resolution Meteosat images covering the years 1989–1999, allowing for a systematic tracking of the mesoscale convective systems (MCSs). The third data set was produced from an experimental network of recording rain gauges covering 16,000 km2 in the region of Niamey, Niger, during the years 1990–2000. The analysis of the regional daily rainfall data set tends to revisit the common vision of the seasonal cycle of the Sahelian rainfall. It is shown that the average regime is in fact composed of two subregimes. One is an oceanic regime characterized by a progressive increase of the moist air flow from the ocean into the continent, associated with the seasonal migration of the ITCZ from its southern position in the boreal winter to its northern position in the boreal summer. The second regime is a continental regime in which rain is mostly produced by large convective systems embedded in the easterly circulation. This continental regime sets in abruptly during the second half of June, and 90% of the Sahelian rainfall is then produced by a small number (12% of the total number) of large and organized mesoscale convective systems. The mean event rainfall associated with these systems is larger than the mean event rainfall observed in the oceanic regime. The average proportion of the Sahelian rainfall occurring during the continental regime represents between 75% and 90% of the total annual rainfall. It is thus necessary to study this regime in order to understand the interannual rainfall variability of the region better. It is shown, for instance, that the main factor of interannual variability is the variability of the number of the large convective systems from year to year. It is also shown, using NCEP/NCAR reanalysis, that the easterly waves, which are a major synoptic feature of the region, are not systematically associated with rain-efficient convective systems and that further studies are needed to understand the differences between wet and dry waves.