The mystery of the shifting tropical rain belt

from (credit: Pacific Worlds)

This week’s science+comics interview is brought to you by Yen-Ting Hwang, a UW Atmospheric Sciences student in the final year of her PhD. Ting’s work is focused on large-scale climate dynamics.

The Sahel region in Africa is a semi-arid boundary along the southern edge of the Sahara desert. The people living in this region are balanced on the very edge of habitable terrain, and rely on a short annual rainy season for their crops to grow. The slightest shift in annual climate can result in devastating crop failures and ultimately widespread famine. During the second half of the twentieth century, the region was hit by year after year of drought.

For her final thesis chapter, Ting has tried to understand why that drought might have happened when it did. The life-sustaining annual rainfall in the region occurs as part of a seasonally migrating tropical rainfall pattern. Scientists call this the ITCZ, or the inter-tropical convergence zone, and it’s a rain band that circles the globe like a belt. Solar radiation near the equator is far stronger than at the poles, and when the moist air near the equator is heated, it rises. The rising air eventually reaches an altitude where it’s cooled, and the moisture that was carried aloft condenses to form clouds and rain.

This air is transported poleward at high altitude until it reaches about 30 degrees latitude either north or south, at which point it sinks down toward the earth’s surface. The air then moves back toward the equator, picking up moisture along the way. This cycle is called Hadley Cell circulation.


By piecing together climate observations, scientists know that the drought in the Sahel region between about 1950-1990 was related to a very slight southward shift of the tropical rain belt. This type of shift happens when the temperature difference between the northern and southern hemispheres changes. If the northern hemisphere is cooler, the northern Hadley cell will strengthen as it tries to pull warm air up from the south, and the tropical rainfall band will shift southward.

To answer this question, Ting compared results from twenty different IPCC models (IPCC = Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). She looked at a variety of different possible factors that could result in an uneven heating or cooling of the planet between the northern and southern hemispheres – things like clouds and ocean circulation. The factor that showed the strongest correlation was surprising: it was the aerosols!

Aerosols are basically tiny particles that are suspended in the air. Naturally occurring aerosols are always floating around our atmosphere – dust from deserts, smoke from forest fires, and even sea salt. But there are also anthropogenic aerosols – the ones that occur as a result of pollution. There are different types, but Ting found that the strong correlation was with sulfate aerosols, which are white in color. These aerosols have two main effects:

a) They reflect sunlight, which means less sunlight reaches the earth’s surface.
b) Aerosols in the air tend to cause clouds to persist for longer than they would other wise – you might imagine droplets of water staying aloft when they have a handy bit of sulfate to stick to.

Overall, both of these lead to a cooling effect.

Aerosols don’t stick around in the air for long though, and they don’t travel far from their source. It’s a bit counterintuitive to imagine that the smog from an American or European factory could be affecting tropical precipitation. But the slightest shift in the temperature balance between the northern and southern hemispheres is all it takes. Here’s a cartoon showing the basics of how this works:


While the Sahel region was being decimated by drought in the twentieth century, industrialization in developed countries was on the rise.   Since most of the industrialization happening at the time was in the northern hemisphere, that hemisphere was cooler than it otherwise would have been.  And model results indicate that this change was enough to shift the tropical rain band southward.  By the 1980s and 1990s, air pollution was widely recognized as being harmful, and various environmental regulations were put into place.  And, lo and behold: that’s about the same time that the ITCZ shifted back to its previous position.

More recently, Ting has been looking at how we can use climate models to predict how the tropical rainfall band might shift or change given different climate scenarios that are tested by IPCC models.  Of course, the effect of aerosols is only one piece of the puzzle.  The northern hemisphere cooling that Ting was investigating was overlaid on an overall warming trend.  The northern hemisphere was actually warming between 1950-1990, just not as quickly as the southern hemisphere.  In fact, recent studies indicate that the northern hemisphere appears to be warming more quickly, which may have significant consequences for tropical precipitation patterns.

To learn more about Ting and her lab group, check out these links:

Press releases about some of their other work:

Also, this paper is in press, so you can read all the details soon!

Hwang, Y.-T., Frierson, D. M. W., and S. M. Kang. Anthropogenic sulfate aerosol and the southward shift of tropical precipitation in the late 20th century. in press, Geophysical Research Letters

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