Most of the African continent is semi-arid and hence prone to extreme variations in rainfall from year to year. The extreme droughts that have plagued the Sahel and eastern Africa are particularly well known. This article uses a markedly expanded and updated rainfall data set to examine rainfall variability in 13 sectors that cover most of the continent. Annual rainfall is presented for each sector; the March-to-May and October–November seasons are also examined for equatorial sectors. In each case, the article includes the longest and most comprehensive precipitation gauge series ever published. All time series cover at least a century and most cover roughly one and one-half centuries or more.
Although towards the end of the 20th century there was a widespread trend towards more arid conditions, few significant trends are evident over the entire period of record. The largest were downward trends in the Sahel and western sectors of North Africa. In those regions, an abrupt reduction in rainfall occurred around 1968, but a synchronous change occurred many other parts of Africa. A recovery did occur in the Sahel, but to varying degrees across the east-west expanse of the region. Noteworthy is that the west-to-east rainfall gradient across the region appears to have weakened in recent decades. For the continent as a whole, another change began in the 1980s decade, with more arid conditions persisting at the continental scale until early in the twenty-first century. No other such period of dry conditions occurred within the roughly one and one-half centuries evaluated here. A notable change also occurred at the seasonal level. During the period 1980 to 1998 rainfall during March-to-May was well below the long-term mean throughout most of the area from 20° N to 35° S. At the same time rainfall was above the long-term mean in most of eastern sectors within this latitude span, indicating a change in the seasonality of rainfall of a large part of Africa.
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