Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

  • Letter
  • Published:

Sahel rainfall and worldwide sea temperatures, 1901–85


Using the comprehensively quality-controlled Meteorological Office Historical Sea Surface Temperature data set (MOHSST)1,2 we show for the first time that persistently wet and dry periods in the Sahel region of Africa are strongly related to contrasting patterns of sea-surface temperature (SST) anomalies on a near-global scale. The anomalies include relative changes in SST between the hemispheres, on timescales of years to tens of years, which are most pronounced in the Atlantic. Experiments with an 11-level global atmospheric general circulation model (AGCM) support the idea that the worldwide SST anomalies modulate summer Sahel rainfall through changes in tropical atmospheric circulation3–6. El Niño events may also play a part. We do not discount the effects of soil moisture and albedo changes in the Sahel7,8, although Courel et al.9 have questioned the importance of albedo changes, but we do suggest that worldwide SST anomalies may have a more fundamental influence on Sahel rainfall.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Access options

Buy this article

Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Similar content being viewed by others


  1. Folland, C. K., Parker, D. E. & Kates, F. E. Nature 310, 670–673 (1984).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  2. Folland, C. K., Parker, D. E. & Newman, M. R. proc. 9th Clim. Diags Conf., Corvallis, Oregon, 22–26 Oct.1984, 70–85 (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).

  3. Lamb, P. J. Tellus. 35 A, 198–212 (1983).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Newell, R. E. & Kidson, J. W. J. Clim. 4, 27–33 (1984).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Hastenrath, S. Mon. Weath. Rev. U.S. Dep. Agric. 112, 1097–1107 (1984).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  6. Lamb, P. J. Tellus. 30, 240–251 (1978).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  7. Cunnington, W. M. & Rowntree, P. R. Q.J. R. met. Soc. 112, (in the press).

  8. Charney, J.G., Quirk, W.J., Chow, S.H. & Kornfield, J. J. atmos. Sci. 34, 1366–1385 (1977).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  9. Courel, M. F., Kandel, R. S. & Rasool, S. I. Nature 307, 528–531 (1984).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  10. Nicholson, S. E. Mon. Weath. Rev. U.S. Dep. Agric. 108, 473–487 (1980).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  11. Nicholson, S. E. J. Clim. appl. Met. 24, 1388–1391 (1985).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Kidson, J. W. Q.Jl Roy. met. Soc. 103, 441–446 (1977).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  13. Winstanley, D. Nature 243, 464–465 (1973).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  14. Miles, M. K. & Folland, C. K. Nature 252, 616 (1974).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  15. Lough, J. M., Clim. Monit. 9, 150–157 (1980); Mon.Weath. Rev. U.S. Dep. Agric. 114 (in the press).

    Google Scholar 

  16. Moura, A. D. & Shukla, J. J. atmos. Sci. 38, 2653–2675 (1981).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  17. Bunker, A. F. Mon. Weath. Rev. U.S. Dep. Agric. 108, 720–732 (1980).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  18. Kukla, G. J. et al. Nature 270, 573–580 (1977).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  19. Newell, R. E. & Hsiung, J. Riv. Ital. Geofis. Sci. Affini 5, 121–125 (1979).

    Google Scholar 

  20. Hsiung, J. & Newell, R. E. J. phys. Oceanogr. 13, 1957–1967 (1983).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  21. Paltridge, G. & Woodruff, S. Mon. Weath. Rev. U.S Dep. Agric. 112, 1093–1095 (1984).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  22. Douglas, A., Cayan, D. & Namias, J. Mon. Weath. Rev. U.S. Dep. Agric. 110, 1851–1862 (1982).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  23. Cadet, D. L. & Diehl, B. C. Mon. Weath. Rev. U.S. Dep. Agric. 112, 1921–1935 (1984).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  24. Barnett, T. P. Mon. Weath. Rev. U.S. Dep. Agric. 112, 303–312 (1984).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  25. Oort, A. H. & Maher, M. C. in Coupled Ocean-Atmosphere Models (ed. Nihoul, J.) 183–198 (Elsevier, Amsterdam, 1985).

    Book  Google Scholar 

  26. Rind, D. & Rossow, W. B. J. atmos. Sci. 41, 479–507 (1984).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  27. Gadgil, S., Joseph, P. V. & Joshi, N. V. Nature 312, 141–143 (1984).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  28. Palmer, T. N. and Mansfield, D. A. Q.J. R. met. Soc. (in the press).

  29. Jaeger, L. Berichte Deutscherwetterd. Vol 18, No. 139 (1976).

  30. Palmer, T. N. Nature (in the press)

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Folland, C., Palmer, T. & Parker, D. Sahel rainfall and worldwide sea temperatures, 1901–85. Nature 320, 602–607 (1986).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing