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M. Issa Lélé and Peter J. Lamb

Abstract

The Intertropical Front (ITF) is a fundamental feature of the atmospheric circulation over West Africa. It separates the wedge of warm moist southwesterly monsoon flow off the tropical Atlantic from much hotter and very dry northeasterly wind from the Sahara Desert. Here, the daily temperature, humidity, and rainfall data for 1974–2003 are analyzed to document the northward advance and southward retreat of the ITF between boreal spring and autumn, and assess its role in Sudan–Sahel (10°–20°N) rainfall patterns. Using largely dekadal (10 day) and monthly resolutions, analyses are performed for the 30-yr-average seasonal time scale and sets of extreme years, with a major focus on concurrent monthly ITF–rainfall relations. The seasonal rainfall predictive potential of the early season ITF latitude is also investigated, as is the secular variation of ITF latitude–weather system–rainfall associations during 1974–2003.

The northward advance of the ITF across the Sudan–Sahel from April to early August is relatively slow, averaging 0.8° latitude dekad−1 (8.8 km day−1). The southward ITF retreat between mid-August and mid-November is almost twice as fast, averaging 1.4° latitude dekad−1 (15.5 km day−1). Coupled with the ITF advance, the monsoon rainbelt migrates northward and intensifies. However, its northern boundary (1 mm day−1 monthly average isohyet) lags 100–250 km south of the ITF, while the most useful rainfall for society (>3 or 4 mm day−1 monthly average) generally occurs more than 400 km south of the ITF. There, the monsoon wedge is thickest and the horizontal velocity and moisture convergence are maximized in a regional ITCZ. The rapid ITF retreat during September–October is preceded by a similar rainbelt displacement. During both ITF advance and retreat, rainfall over the Sudan–Sahel region is positively related to the ITF’s latitude. The association is strongest during the early (April–June) and late (October) rainy season months (linear correlation, r = +0.74 to +0.81), when the ITF is located to the south and rainfall is low. It is weaker during the July–September rainy season core when the ITF is farthest north (r = +0.50 to +0.58). This concurrent rainfall dependence on ITF latitude is established further by contingency analyses for the 30-yr study period and by investigation of several extremely dry and wet individual seasons. The April ITF latitude anomaly is a moderately consistent indicator of the subsequent ITF latitude and associated rainfall anomaly through the first core rainy season month (July). This seasonal prediction potential does not persist into the rainy season peak (August), when the concurrent ITF–rainfall relationship is weakest (r = +0.50), the monsoon wedge is thickest, and rain-producing mesoscale dynamical processes are developed fully. However, because the ITF tends to retreat early (late) in seasons when it advanced early (late), the April ITF latitude specification of the September–October ITF latitude and rainfall (negative) is almost as consistent as that for July (positive). The secular variation of ITF latitude during 1974–2003 strongly influenced mesoscale weather systems and rainfall variability on decadal time scales.

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