Assessing recovery and change in West Africa’s rainfall regime from a 161-year record

2018 - Int J Climatol. 2018;1 – 17.


Sharon E. Nicholson

Additional authors:

Andreas H. Fink, | Chris Funk




The Sahel region is known for the multi-decadal occurrence of severe drought that commenced in the late 1960s. A still open question is whether or not the region’s rainfall has returned to “normal.” This paper provides a compelling answer to that question by examining the longest and most comprehensive gauge series for the region ever published. It extends from 1854 to 2014 and is based on 602 gauge records. A comparative series for the Guinea Coast region to the south is also presented, as the two regions collectively provide insight into the long-term variability of the West African monsoon. In contrast to many previous studies, here the question of recovery and regime change is not restricted to the core of the Sahelian rainy season (July–September), but is separately discussed also for the coastal phase (April–May), transition phase (June), Sahelian phase (July–September) and the second transition phase (October–November) of the West African monsoon. These analyses suggest that full recovery from the droughts of the 1970s and 1980s has not occurred that a major change in the rainfall regime occurred around 1968 and that since that time large-scale teleconnections have also changed markedly. The shift post-1968 is evident in all phases of the monsoon except the coastal phase, in which a change to drier conditions occurred a decade later. Overall, recovery has been greater in the east than in the west, creating a change in the climatological east–west rainfall gradient. The drier post-1968 conditions appear to be associated with a general weakening of the intensity of the West African monsoon and only a small southwards displacement of the rainfall maximum. These changes have strong implications for the future of this region and for seasonal prediction.