The West African Monsoon Dynamics. Part II: The “Preonset” and “Onset” of the Summer Monsoon

Benjamin Sultan LMD/IPSL, CNRS, Ecole Polytechnique, Palaiseau, France

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Serge Janicot LMD/IPSL, CNRS, Ecole Polytechnique, Palaiseau, France

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Abstract

The arrival of the summer monsoon over West Africa has been documented by using daily gridded rainfall data and NCEP–NCAR reanalyses during the period 1968–90, and OLR data over the period 1979–90. Two steps have been characterized through a composite approach: the preonset and the onset of the summer monsoon.

The preonset stage corresponds to the arrival in the intertropical front (ITF) at 15°N, that is, the confluence line between moist southwesterly monsoon winds and dry northeasterly Harmattan, bringing sufficient moisture for isolated convective systems to develop in the Sudano–Sahelian zone while the intertropical convergence zone (ITCZ) is centered at 5°N. The mean date for the preonset occurrence is 14 May and its standard deviation is 9.5 days during the period 1968–90. This leads to a first clear increase of the positive rainfall slope corresponding to the beginning of the rainy season over this Sudano–Sahelian area.

The onset stage of the summer monsoon over West Africa is linked to an abrupt latitudinal shift of the ITCZ from a quasi-stationary location at 5°N in May–June to another quasi-stationary location at 10°N in July–August. The mean date for the onset occurrence is 24 June and its standard deviation is 8 days during the period 1968–90. This leads to a second increase of the positive rainfall slope over the Sudano–Sahelian zone signing the northernmost location of the ITCZ and the beginning of the monsoon season. This abrupt shift occurs mostly between 10°W and 5°E, where a meridional land–sea contrast exists, and it is characterized by a temporary rainfall and convection decrease over West Africa. Preonset dates, onset dates, and summer rainfall amount over the Sahel are uncorrelated during the period 1968–90.

The atmospheric dynamics associated with the abrupt ITCZ shift has been investigated. Between the preonset and the onset stages, the heat low dynamics associated with the ITF controls the circulation in the low and midlevels. Its meridional circulation intensity is the highest at the beginning of the monsoon onset. This can lead to 1) increased convective inhibition in the ITCZ through intrusion of dry and subsiding air from the north, and 2) increased potential instability through a greater inland moisture advection and a higher monsoon depth induced by a stronger cyclonic circulation in the low levels, through higher vertical wind shear due to westerly monsoon wind and midlevel African easterly jet (AEJ) increases, through enhancement of the instability character of the AEJ, and through increased shortwave radiation received at the surface. During the monsoon onset, once the rainfall minimum occurred due to the convective inhibition, the accumulated potential instability breaks the convective inhibition, the inertial instability of the monsoon circulation is released, and the associated regional-scale circulation increases, leading to the abrupt shift of the ITCZ. Then the ITCZ moves north up to 10°N, where thermodynamical conditions are favorable.

It is suggested by the authors that the abrupt shift of the ITCZ, initiated by the amplification of the heat low dynamics, could be due to an interaction with the northern orography of the Atlas–Ahaggar Mountains. Subsidence over and north of this orography, due to both the northern branches of the heat low and of the northern Hadley-type cell, contributes to enhance the high geopotentials north of these mountains and the associated northeasterly winds. This leads to the development of a leeward trough that reinforces the heat low dynamics, maintaining an active convective ITCZ through enhanced moist air advection from the ocean, increasing the northern Hadley circulation, which reinforces the high geopotentials and the interaction with the orography through a positive feedback. The fact that an abrupt shift of the ITCZ is only observed on the western part of West Africa may result from the enhancement of moisture advection, which comes from the west and has a stronger impact west of the Greenwich meridian.

The northwest–southeast orientation of the Atlas–Ahaggar crest can induce the interaction with the heat low, first in the east where the mountains are nearer to the ITF than in the west, and second in the west. Another consequence of the possible orography-induced interaction with the atmospheric circulation is that the induced leeward trough, increasing the cyclonic vorticity in the heat low, may stimulate moisture convergence in the oceanic ITCZ near the western coast of West Africa.

Corresponding author address: Dr. Serge Janicot, Laboratoire de Météorologie Dynamique, Ecole Polytechnique, 91128 Palaiseau Cedex, France. Email: janicot@lmd.polytechnique.fr

Abstract

The arrival of the summer monsoon over West Africa has been documented by using daily gridded rainfall data and NCEP–NCAR reanalyses during the period 1968–90, and OLR data over the period 1979–90. Two steps have been characterized through a composite approach: the preonset and the onset of the summer monsoon.

The preonset stage corresponds to the arrival in the intertropical front (ITF) at 15°N, that is, the confluence line between moist southwesterly monsoon winds and dry northeasterly Harmattan, bringing sufficient moisture for isolated convective systems to develop in the Sudano–Sahelian zone while the intertropical convergence zone (ITCZ) is centered at 5°N. The mean date for the preonset occurrence is 14 May and its standard deviation is 9.5 days during the period 1968–90. This leads to a first clear increase of the positive rainfall slope corresponding to the beginning of the rainy season over this Sudano–Sahelian area.

The onset stage of the summer monsoon over West Africa is linked to an abrupt latitudinal shift of the ITCZ from a quasi-stationary location at 5°N in May–June to another quasi-stationary location at 10°N in July–August. The mean date for the onset occurrence is 24 June and its standard deviation is 8 days during the period 1968–90. This leads to a second increase of the positive rainfall slope over the Sudano–Sahelian zone signing the northernmost location of the ITCZ and the beginning of the monsoon season. This abrupt shift occurs mostly between 10°W and 5°E, where a meridional land–sea contrast exists, and it is characterized by a temporary rainfall and convection decrease over West Africa. Preonset dates, onset dates, and summer rainfall amount over the Sahel are uncorrelated during the period 1968–90.

The atmospheric dynamics associated with the abrupt ITCZ shift has been investigated. Between the preonset and the onset stages, the heat low dynamics associated with the ITF controls the circulation in the low and midlevels. Its meridional circulation intensity is the highest at the beginning of the monsoon onset. This can lead to 1) increased convective inhibition in the ITCZ through intrusion of dry and subsiding air from the north, and 2) increased potential instability through a greater inland moisture advection and a higher monsoon depth induced by a stronger cyclonic circulation in the low levels, through higher vertical wind shear due to westerly monsoon wind and midlevel African easterly jet (AEJ) increases, through enhancement of the instability character of the AEJ, and through increased shortwave radiation received at the surface. During the monsoon onset, once the rainfall minimum occurred due to the convective inhibition, the accumulated potential instability breaks the convective inhibition, the inertial instability of the monsoon circulation is released, and the associated regional-scale circulation increases, leading to the abrupt shift of the ITCZ. Then the ITCZ moves north up to 10°N, where thermodynamical conditions are favorable.

It is suggested by the authors that the abrupt shift of the ITCZ, initiated by the amplification of the heat low dynamics, could be due to an interaction with the northern orography of the Atlas–Ahaggar Mountains. Subsidence over and north of this orography, due to both the northern branches of the heat low and of the northern Hadley-type cell, contributes to enhance the high geopotentials north of these mountains and the associated northeasterly winds. This leads to the development of a leeward trough that reinforces the heat low dynamics, maintaining an active convective ITCZ through enhanced moist air advection from the ocean, increasing the northern Hadley circulation, which reinforces the high geopotentials and the interaction with the orography through a positive feedback. The fact that an abrupt shift of the ITCZ is only observed on the western part of West Africa may result from the enhancement of moisture advection, which comes from the west and has a stronger impact west of the Greenwich meridian.

The northwest–southeast orientation of the Atlas–Ahaggar crest can induce the interaction with the heat low, first in the east where the mountains are nearer to the ITF than in the west, and second in the west. Another consequence of the possible orography-induced interaction with the atmospheric circulation is that the induced leeward trough, increasing the cyclonic vorticity in the heat low, may stimulate moisture convergence in the oceanic ITCZ near the western coast of West Africa.

Corresponding author address: Dr. Serge Janicot, Laboratoire de Météorologie Dynamique, Ecole Polytechnique, 91128 Palaiseau Cedex, France. Email: janicot@lmd.polytechnique.fr

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