Most of South Africa’s seasonal rainfall occurs during the warmer summer months, from October to March. As a result, October is an important period for farmers to begin planning when to sow crops (such as maize, wheat and sunflowers) for the growing season. October is also an important period for the tourism industry to think about water supplies for the upcoming summer holiday season.
The timing of summer rainfall, and all rainfall across South Africa, is determined by large-scale climate systems. Climate change is gradually changing the location of these systems and their moisture corridors, which bring rainfall to each region. The southward shift in the westerly winds (one of these large-scale climate systems) and their mid-latitude cyclones is one of the reasons Cape Town suffered such a severe water shortage between 2015 and 2017.
Research shows that the record low rainfall amounts were caused by recent expansion of the Hadley cell, the circulation of air from the tropics to subtropics. This expansion has changed the timing of summer rainfall and caused intensification of high-pressure systems (causing dry conditions), and a southward shift of the westerly wind belt (providing moisture for winter cold front rainfall).
South Africa has distinct spatial zones of rainfall seasonality. These are termed the summer-, winter- and year-round rainfall zones. Eastern and central regions get their rainfall during the summer months. That’s when the southwestern Cape and west coast regions are dry due to strong high-pressure conditions. In winter, the high-pressure systems shift north, sitting across the interior of the country and causing dry conditions there. The southern coast and a strip of land between the summer and winter rainfall zones form the year-round rainfall zone.
Most research in South Africa has focused on how large-scale climate system changes are influencing rainfall totals. Little research has considered consequent changes in rainfall seasonality – the timing of rainfall, including when the wet season begins and ends. These changes are important to consider, because rainfall seasonality changes across South Africa may have detrimental impacts on crop yields and surface water supplies. This prompted our research, recently published in the International Journal of Climatology.
We used rainfall and temperature records between 1987 and 2016 from 46 weather stations across South Africa to calculate annual rainfall seasonality characteristics using two methods. These quantify the strength of seasonality, and the wet-season start- and end-dates, length, total rainfall amount, number of rain days and rainfall intensity. We then explored how these characteristics changed during 1987-2016. We chose this recent 30-year period because that’s when climate change impacts have begun to show.
The hope is that this information can inform effective adaptation in sectors and activities dependent on rainfall seasonality characteristics. This is because, if sustained, the trends we calculated present a concerning outlook for continued crop production and water resource management.