A massive, 300 year-old Piorites coral in the Red Sea similar to the one used to gather information about wind patterns associated with the South Asian Monsoon.
[Credit: Konrad Hughen, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution].
When it comes to understanding future climate, the south Asian summer monsoon offers a paradox. Most climate models predict that as human-caused global warming increases, monsoon rain and wind will become more intense -- but weather data collected in the region shows that rainfall has actually declined over the past 50 years. A new study from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) may help explain this discrepancy. Using chemical data from corals in the Red Sea, scientists reconstructed nearly three centuries of wind data that provided a definitive, natural record of the monsoon's intensity. The finding, published in the Journal Geophysical Research Letters, show that monsoon winds have indeed increased over the past centuries.
The south Asian monsoon is important as it is the biggest climate systems on the planet and supplies water for almost a billion people but it’s long-term behaviour is still not well understood. This is because the historic records of rainfall are based on limited points in space with high variability and calculating averages across a broad region is difficult. One branch of the monsoon moves predominantly west to east, crossing the Sahara Desert in northeast Africa, where it picks up fine dust and clay in the process. Its winds are then funnelled through the Tokar Gap, a narrow mountain pass in eastern Sudan, where the dust they contain spills out into the Red Sea. The dust picked up in the Sahara contains a form of barium that dissolves easily in seawater. Each year, corals in the Red Sea incorporate part of that barium into their skeletons as they grow, trapping within them a record of how much wind and dust blew through the gap during summer monsoons for hundreds of years.
Barium is used as a proxy for wind and the more barium present in a layer of coral, the more wind was coming through the Tokar Gap during the year it formed. Based on those winds, the location of the low-pressure systems that caused them were calculated which were found to be primarily over the Indian subcontinent. That, therefore, confirmed the winds' connection to the monsoon. The data in the corals seems to prove that historic records of rainfall may be missing a broader picture. Stronger winds would have increased moisture traveling over the Indian subcontinent, despite records showing rainfall dropping off. However, it could be that those records simply missed some of the rainfall, especially in the past when they were less reliable. Rain is highly variable from one place to another and sometimes it might be pouring just a few miles from an area that is not as wet.
The coral records show that the strength of the monsoon is in fact increasing with time - a trend that is in line with existing climate models but its variability from decade to decade is diminishing. This suggests that as the climate has warmed, monsoon circulation has become more stable, so extra-heavy winds and rains could be the "new normal" for future years rather than just an anomaly.
Sean P. Bryan, Konrad A. Hughen, Kristopher B. Karnauskas, J. Thomas Farrar. Two Hundred Fifty Years of Reconstructed South Asian Summer Monsoon Intensity and Decadal‐Scale Variability. Geophysical Research Letters, 2019; DOI:10.1029/2018GL081593
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© 2019 Oceanographer Daneeja Mawren