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Tropical and Sub-Tropical West Africa

Marine and Continental Changes During the Late Quaternary

First Edition

P. Giresse

Professor Emeritus, University of Perpignan, Perpignan, France


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Table of Contents

Cover image

Title page

Copyright page



Part I: Present Terrestrial Environments

1: Geological and Morphological Setting

1 General Geological Setting

2 Morphological Setting

2: Atmospheric Circulation Climatic Mechanisms and African Climate

1 Atmospheric Mass and Flows

2 Climatic Mechanisms and Seasonal Variations

3 Climatic Zonation and Annual Rainfall Variability

3: Characteristics of the Soils and Present Day Vegetation of Tropical West Africa

1 Characteristics of the Soils of Tropical West Africa

2 Present Day Vegetation

4: Present Fluxes of Suspended and Dissolved Matter in Rivers

1 Discharges and River Flow

2 Suspended Matter Fluxes

3 Dissolved Material Export

4 General Budget, Remarks

5: Present Aeolian Dust Transport

1 Kinetic Energy of the Wind

2 Vertical and Areal Atmospheric Distribution of Saharan and Namibian Dust

3 Particle-Size, Mineralogy, Source Area

4 Distribution of Wind-Borne Dusts on the African Continent

Part II: Present Oceanic Environments

6: Atlantic Ocean Circulation- Leakage with Climatic Fluctuations

1 Deep-Water Mass Circulation

2 Dynamic of Surface Circulation

3 Heat Transfer and Ocean-Climate System

4 Associated Productivity Pattern

7: Suspended Matter and Particle Fluxes in the Eastern Atlantic

1 Surface Suspended Matter

2 Suspended Matter in the Deep-Water

8: Present Oceanic Deposition

1 Distribution of Wind-Borne Dust (mainly from Saharan Region)

2 River Transported Mineral Debris (Clay Minerals, Quartz)

3 Calcium Carbonates

4 Organic Carbon

5 Biogenic Opal

6 Classification and General Distribution of Bottom Sediments Beyond the Continental Shelf

7 Sediment Depositional Processes (Turbidity Currents, Pelagic Setting, and Non-Deposition)

8 Weight Rates of Deposition and Fluxes

Part III: Deep-Sea Record of Late Quaternary Change

9: Changes Deduced from Foraminiferal Assemblages, their Isotopic Composition and from Alkenones

1 Oxygen Isotope Records of Foraminifers from Deep-Sea Sediments

2 Planktonic and Benthic Foraminiferal Fauna Composition

4 Estimated Sea Surface Temperatures and Function Transfer, 0–20,000 yr BP-CLIMAP Reconstruction of Boundary Conditions for the Climate 18,000 Years Ago

5 Carbon Isotope Records of Foraminifer from Deep-Sea Sediments

6 Evidence from Alkenones for Sea Surface Temperatures

10: Changes Deduced from Other Planktonic Components

1 Diatom Flora

2 Radiolarian Fauna

3 Coccolithophoridae and Dinoflagellate Flora

11: An Attempt to Model Glacial-Holocene Contrasts in Surface Waters of the Eastern Atlantic

1 Temperature Difference in Surface Waters between Present Day and Last Glacial Maximum

2 Displacement of the Benguela Current–Precessional Forcing, Scales and Processes

3 Events in an Ice-Age Cycle

4 Younger Dryas Event in the Tropical Atlantic Waters

5 Climatic Fluctuations After 3,000 yr BP

12: Changes Deduced from Pollen

1 Some Long-Term Records

2 Last 150,000 yr Time Slices of Vegetation Changes

3 General Vegetation Changes Recorded in Marine and Terrestrial Sites

13: Changes Deduced from Atmospheric Dust Transport

1 Long-Term Trends

2 Changes During the Last 125,000 Years

3 Equatorial Records from Deep-Sea Sediments

4 Southern Hemisphere Records from Deep-Sea Sediments

14: Changes Deduced from Carbonate Depositional System

1 Long-Term General Fluctuations in the Lysocline and the C CD

2 Sharp Fluctuations in CaCO3 Content Below or Near the CCD

3 Fluctuations in Carbonate Contents in Sediments Above the CCD

15: Changes Deduced from Other Biogenic Components

1 Organic Carbon Accumulation

2 Biogenic Opal Accumulation

16: Changes Deduced from Clay Minerals Assemblages

1 Long-Term Clay Minerals Changes – A Summary

2 Clay Minerals Changes During Pleistocene Times

3 Clay Mineral Changes During the Last Glacial-Interglacial Transition

17: Sediment Accumulation Rates and Fluxes

1 Long-Term Records of Mass Fluxes and Sediment Accumulation Rates

2 Mass Fluxes and Sediment Accumulation Rates in the Pleistocene

3 Late Quaternary Mass Fluxes and Sediment Accumulation Rates

Part IV: Land-Ocean Boundary: Continental Shelf and Shoreline Records of Late Quaternary Changes

18: Sea Level Fluctuation on the Atlantic Margin of Africa During the Past 125,000 Years

1 Onshore Quaternary Shorelines Evidences

2 Submarine Quaternary Shoreline Evidences

19: Successive Continental Shelf Sedimentation Related to Climatic and Sea Level Changes

1 Introduction

2 The Northern Arid Zone

3 The Tropical Humid Zone

4 The Southern Arid Zone

20: Neoformation Processes (Green Clay Grains, Phosphate, and Carbonate)

1 Green Clay Grains

2 Phosphates

3 Chemical Carbonates

Part V: Terrestrial Evidence of Late Quaternary Changes

21: Records in Lake Deposits

1 Tropical Belt Records

2 Lacustrine Records in the Sahel and Southern Sahara

3 Attempt of Assessment of Paleohydrological Data from the African Tropics

22: Inferences from Coastal Peats Soils, Alluvial Deposits and Other Terrestrial Evidences

1 Coastal Peat Palaeoenvironments

2 Soils and Palaeosoils

3 Stone-Line (Stone-Layer) Complexes

4 Alluvial Terraces

Part VI: Climatic Evolution and Human Presence

23: Lithic Artefact Dating Environment Context

1 Early Stone Age - Acheulian Techno-Complex

2 Middle Stone Age and Late Stone Age – Environmental Diversification

3 Neolithic and Iron Age: Early Farmers and Iron-Working People

4 Provisional Overall Picture of Human Development and Climatic Trend Interference

24: Landscape and Recent Human Development Implications

1 Tropical Deforestation in West Africa

2 Global Climate Sensivity to Tropical Deforestation

3 Human Impact on Erosion and Runoff

4 Erosivity Contiguous to the New Urban Centres

5 Specific Erosion of the Sides of Lakes on the Cameroon Line

6 Impact of River Control in West Africa

25: Anthropogenic Action and Global Change

1 Human Interference as a Possible Global Forcing Factor

2 Climatic Changes During the Last Thousand Years

3 Since When did the Ancestors Disturb the Natural System?



Copyright page


I am not a great believer in thank yous for the sake of thank yous. Too often they are relatively meaningless and follow a predictable script friends you cannot imagine how much I have benefited from the help and assistance of the following exceptional chaps and how much you let yourselves be convinced of my own high position. Having said that, I make an exception and sincerely thank two very different individuals who are no longer with us:

Louis Dangeard, my old Professor and Supervisor, an extremely intelligent and cultured man whose desire to push the boundaries of research had no limit. He was an academic from the old school—more from the first half of the twentieth century than the second half. In today’s world, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, it is questionable whether his scientific practices would be acceptable; however, it is most likely that his methods shaped, in part, my own attitude and behavior.

Hugues Faure was the outstanding African geologist for all his generation of students across all continents. His pioneering work and his sheer, sometimes youthful enthusiasm, left an indelible impression on me.

Occasionally, I was jealous of these two men, a sure sign of admiration.

My own slightly unconventional journey was that of a research analyst looking for his holy grail who sometimes followed the straight route, sometimes took detours though not always by choice. Successive positions as a research analyst for the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique ((CNRS), as aid worker (French Cooperation Department) at the University of Brazzaville (Congo), and as a scholar allowed me to participate in several national and international programmes dealing with both marine and continental Quaternary palaeoenvironments of a large West Africa. Nowadays, this could be called the spreading oneself thin…, sometimes I just let myself go, but then, I do not deny it.

My story, and this book, is one of chance occasions and meetings that allowed me to move forward.

In 1966, the sponsoring (yet) of the Bureau de Recherches Pétrolières (Alain Perrodon) and the Société des Pétroles d’Afrique Équatoriale (Daniel Reyre) allowed this very young CNRS researcher his first African experience through some tricky manoeuvres in the mangroves and channels of the delta of Ogooué River (Gabon). It was aboard unstable and small crafts called pinasses, a name from Gironde, that the first marine grains were discovered, which won me the enthusiast support of Georges Millot—the Dean of clay mineralogy—but I did say that I would avoid name dropping. My posting in 1970 at the University of Brazzaville as a cooperator marked the beginning of the creation of a local team studying the Quaternary with my fellow cooperators: Guy Cornen, Georges Kouyoumontzakis, Raymond Lanfranchi, Gérard Moguedet, and Bernard Peyrot (apologies if I have inadvertently omitted any one). Here, the assistance and support of ORSTOM (Office de la Recherche Scientifique et Technique Outre-Mer) and of the following directors of the Centre of Pointe-Noire (Jean-Claude Le Guen, Alain Dessier, André Fontana, Bernard Piton) was crucial, particularly, the regular access it afforded us to the Research Vessel, André Nizery. This vessel, thanks to the friendly cooperation of its Captain Louis Plessis and his team of officers, allowed me to conduct about 10 expeditions on the Congolese Margin from the mouth of the Congo River to the Ogooué River. One of these trips was carried out in conjunction with the Research Vessel Tyro of NIOZ from Texel (Holland) and in particular with J.H.F. (Fred) Jansen. One of the last expedition results is the discovery of a deposit of a subaqueous deposit of phosphate gravels leading to new oceanic trips, exploration trips with the French B RGM, then feasibility study with the Revolving Fund of United Nations (UNDP)… and finally opportunities of Doctoral Theses for young Congolese peoples. This near 10 years experience in the Congo also offered the opportunity for scientific trips to other West African: Gabon once more, Centrafrica Republic, Angola, Mauritania, Senegal. I got involved in Senegal with René Guiraud where I met Cyr Descamps and Jacques Monteillet: after my return to France, at the University of Perpignan, I once again returned to Senegal thanks to my work with Jean-Paul Barusseau.

Thereafter, my scientific journey writ from the University of Perpignan was dedicated almost solely to Quaternary environments of seas, lakes, and rivers of Africa. This consistency was possible thanks firstly to numerous teaching and research missions in Congo, then Cameroon and Gabon, missions under the guidance of the French Cooperation Department and in various inter-academic conventions, and the CAMPUS Cameroon programme. These studies and conventions formed the basis of about 20 Doctoral Thesis prepared by young Africans from different coastal West Africa countries. In addition, several pieces of research benefited from the support of various CNRS programmes: Programmed Thematic Actions, Interdisciplinary Research Program on Environment, ODP France, and particularly Programmed Scientific Action Africa. But, it was still the organization ORSTOM, today IRD (Institut de Recherche et du Développement), that I found the logistic and scientific surroundings the most reliable and which allowed me to extend my work notably in connection with ECOFIT program, a mixed IRD–CNRS program. In this period, I predominantly focused on Cameroon and then, nowadays, Gabon (in a sense a journey back to my roots); Jean Maley was present almost throughout. The CAMPUS Programme for which I was responsible allowed me to become re-acquainted with the research vessel André Nizery and its captain Louis Plessis (12 years later) to carry three reconnaissance trips, this time at the edge of Cameroon.

Iron, its development in oceanic water and the complex steps of its mineralogical binding inside the green grains of marine beds remained the continuum of my route. Today, it is a multidisciplinary research that I have been able to follow thanks to a relationship of 20 years with Andrzej Wiewióra in the context of an agreement between CNRS and the Polish Academy of Science.


It was a difficult task for a French speaker like me to write near 400 pages in a language which I know too well is not exactly English… It was even harder for my English-speaking colleagues to read only to find numerous errors. Funnily enough, several pieces of texts already published in English-speaking publications and already checked have been significantly redrafted. These paradoxes are no doubt due to the mysteries of the English language. But even more surprising, there are paragraphs written solely by my own hand which have been accepted without correction (well, sometimes). To be honest, this does not make me proud, in fact far from comforting me on my English writing skills, it just baffles me even more.

I sincerely thank all those who have sacrified their time to improve the final draft: Anonymous (Part B), Michelle Goman (Part E), Brian Bornhold (Part C), Paolo Pirazzoli (Part D), John Gowlett (Part F), Jaap J.M. van der Meer (parts A, D, F).

Finally a, a special word of thanks to Jaap J.M. van der Meer, Series Editor of Development in Quaternary Science, whose direct and indirect assistance enabled me to complete this work.


Western tropical Africa during the Quaternary was largely the domain of the equatorial and tropical forest, with their successive floristic or/and geographical modifications as a result of climatic fluctuations. During the Last Glacial Maximum, it is well established that the northern limit of the forest has moved towards the south. Less known or more recently demonstrated is the episode of deterioration of the dense and semi-deciduous forest around 3 ka. Thus, the African continent allows to address a number of issues relevant to the dynamics of vegetal cover and climate history both as inputs to models of climatic dynamics, and as an indication of which sediment records might be best suited for palaeoenvironmental downcore time series. Thermal changes in the ocean are based on a general poleward flux of heat, from this viewpoint the Atlantic and especially its mid latitude areas, are exceptional because this is the area of a double water mass exchange with an equatorward heat transfer, from cold to warm regions and with the passage of North Atlantic Deep Water from the North Atlantic to the southern Indian and Pacific Oceans. This global conveyor belt drives the Atlantic deep-water circulation and more widely had an impact on the global ocean circulation. Various abrupt climate fluctuations, at various temporal scales, appear to be linked to the control of this conveyor belt.

The purpose of a positive and negative comparison between Quaternary data related to the western tropical Africa and to the adjacent Atlantic basin identifies the relative scarcity of the contribution to continental palaeoenvironments. The author was aware of this quantitative and sometimes qualitative disparity from the outset of this work; it causes a feeling of frustration almost amounting to disappointment through the progress of the writing. This remark is not new, as it has ever been voiced in various fields of palaeoenvironmental research. But it is interesting to note that despite this imbalance, the land-sea dialogue is still attractive research today, albeit in different guises and with different aims.

et al. (1976) emphasised that equatorial Atlantic sediment provides a continuous sedimentary record while the continental stratigraphy is somewhat uncertain because of gaps in the sedimentary records and limitation to 35,000 yr BP in radiocarbon dating. However, he acknowledged that CaCO3 fluctuations in deep-sea sediments apparently correlate with the continental records. Thus, this correlation offers encouragement that carbonate analyses in marine sediments may provide a continuous accurate record of climatic fluctuations for at least the late Quaternary.

Similarly, Stein and Sarnthein (1984) noted that various sedimentary records from northwestern Africa met with difficulties because usually, terrestrial sections are rather incomplete and discontinuous. This means that the climatic signal of the land record can be rather biased by local factors and are difficult to correlate to the global paleoclimate stratigraphy. Stein and Sarnthein also admitted that these on land records are helpful in providing a coarse-grid reference standard for our results from the deep-sea sediment record.

Later, the same authors (Sarnthein and Stein, 1989) suggested once more that long-term climatic change in North Africa is best based on the deep-sea sediment record because it is generally far more complete and precisely dated than land-based records. They introduced also the potential benefit of these deep-sea records to the study of global climate in high and low latitudes.

Hooghiemstra (1988) emphasised that unlike terrestrial pollen sequences on the Northwest African continent, the offshore marine sequences often cover a long interval and have been deposited continuously. The oxygen isotope time control constitutes another advantage of the marine pollen records. However, most of the deep-sea sediments, far from the pollen sources, have a low and even non-representative pollen content. Long marine records were used by Dupont et al. (2000) to determine the regional picture of equatorial West Africa over the last 150,000 years. But it is clear that shorter terrestrial records help fill-in the picture for the most recent periods and facilitate interpretation of regional patterns for the longer time scale.

Even if the structure of this book – especially the chapter headings – suggests that the submarine archives for the Quaternary are more comprehensive and documented than the continent records, we must admit that the quality of various land observations is irreplaceable. This is illustrated by some short-term record which highlight exciting new developments, such as recent afforestation of savanna indicated by soil organic carbon isotope indicators, apparent ¹⁴C ages and mean residence time of soil organic matter.

Land is the territory of man that has suffered major revolutions in ecosystems that influence his settlement and his way of life. In the past, there can be no doubt that the early evolution of mankind in East Africa was largely controlled, then favoured by natural environment changes. And although conclusive evidence is difficult to obtain, it is generally believed that we exist since terrestrial ecosystems were being severely disrupted. Nevertheless, some four centuries ago, the sight of large fires on sides of coastal mountains impressed the first navigators; such a very old tradition is presently aggravated by their modem African practice, especially in some unsteady, transitional vegetation zone. As indicated by prehistoric and archaeological evidence, most of western Africa was occupied by humans. There are serious and probably under-documented implications for human settlement throughout at western and central Africa posed by the extension of savanna some 3–2000 years ago. For this reason, fluctuations of the density and movement of people must be understood together with the major vegetation changes.

In this work, we build on the reviews of present day terrestrial and oceanic environments by providing an overview of the principal characteristics of climatic mechanisms, vegetation, fluviatile and aeolian fluxes, oceanic circulation and deposition. Following this, the main advances in the conceptual understanding of marine and terrestrial Quaternary changes are highlighted with a final chapter dedicated to the development of mankind. This work does not intend to be an encyclopaedic review of the palaeoenvironmental literature on the tropical eastern Atlantic and western Africa, but rather a perspective of the most important elements of the system and its dynamic.

Based on a multidisciplinary approach, the subject matter of the book includes palaeorecords and modern data, as collected in tropical Africa, the adjacent Atlantic and the surrounding regions. This approachs provides an opportunity for judging the synchrony or non-synchroneity of climatic changes between various tropical environments and their arid transition in both the Northern and Southern Hemisphere (Sahel, southern Sahara and Namibia). The eastern boundaries of this study area are within Atlantic oriented draining basins. However, the Chad Basin and part of the Congo Basin are included within the area covered by this book.

In this general framework, the limits of the time-span studied are usually determined by the collected data so that the last glacio-eustatic cycle, ca. 125,000 years has preferential treatment. Unfortunately, this time frame is unrealistic in the terrestrial environments of western Africa, which reach hardly 35,000 yr BP. This emphasises the importance of oceanic records, supported by abundant palaeoceanographic literature providing high resolution. These records provide the opportunity to calibrate the pattern of climatic response over the last 2 or 3 Myr, and the relation with orbital forcings.

As a conclusion of some chapters, an attempt is made to evaluate the state of the science and to consider the potential of the various methods for future research. Of particular concern is the issue of the spatial and temporal representativeness of data in both terrestrial and oceanic settings, where regional environmental and oceanographic signals might be overwhelmed by noise associated with local processes. For example, the temperature range between glacial and interglacial in the equatorial oceans, and the cause of the changes, remains controversial (Mix and Morey, 1996). The first CLIMAP’ reconstruction of ice-age sea-surface temperatures, based on microfossil percentages, concluded that the South Equatorial Current, in the central Atlantic, was cooler than today in the cool upwelling season (August) by 2–4 °C However, following discussion about ecological preferences and different preservation potential of different groups, the authors stress that there is as yet no consensus on the true amplitude of tropical Sea-Surface Temperature change. Other topics are still attracting research and are still a matter of controversy: (1) the causes of the Younger Dryas event; (2) the timing of very rapid transition at the initiation of warming events with respect to atmospheric CO2 and isotopic records and its African consequence; (3) the nature of climatic evolution in Africa during the last 3,000 years although the earliest observation are mostly from terrestrial sites. It is presumed that between the time of writing this introduction and the date of issue of this book, much research papers will have followed these lines of enquiry.


Be AWH, Damuth JE, Lott L, Free R. Late Quaternary climate record in western equatorial Atlantic sediment. Memoirs of Geological Society of America. 1976;145:165–200.

Stein R, Sarnthein M. Late Neogene events of atmospheric and oceanic circulation offshore northwest Africa: high resolution record from deep-sea sediments. Palaeoecology of Africa. 1984;16:9–36.

Tiedemann R, Sarnthein M, Stein R. Climatic changes in the western Sahara: aeolo-marine sediment record on the last 8 million years (Sites 657–661). In: Ruddiman WF, Sarnthein M, et al., eds. Proceedings of the Ocean Drilling Project. 241–277. Scientific Results. 1989;108.

Hooghiemstra H. Late Quaternary changes in vegetation and climate in NW Africa: Pollen evidence from marine sediments. Palaeoecology of Africa, Rotterdam, Nederlands, Balkema. 1988;19:1–10.

Dupont LM, Jahns S, Marret F, Ning S. Vegetation change in equatorial West Africa: time-slices for the last 150 ka. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology. 2000;155:95–122.

Mix AC, Morey AE. Climate feedback and Pleistocene variations in the Atlantic South Equatorial Current. In: Wefer G, Berger WH, Siedler G, Webb DJ, eds. The South Atlantic. Present and Past Circulation. Berlin: Springer; 1996:503–525.

Part I

Present Terrestrial Environments


Geological and Morphological Setting

P. Giresse

1 General Geological Setting

The geological maps show that Africa is almost entirely made up of basement Precambrian rocks. The only exceptions are constituted by northwestern and southern parts of the continent where narrow Phanerozoic mountains belts are stacked against the Precambrian landmass. Structurally, the Precambrian geology of Africa is grossly divided into cratons and mobile belts (Petters, 1991). The two most important cratons are the West African craton and the Congo (Zaire) craton (Fig. 1 (a,b)). Surrounding the cratons are the belts, which have been deformed or metamorphosed during the Early Palaeozoic Pan-African orogeny. Cratonic nuclei are observed in the central, northeastern and northwestern parts of the Congo (Zaire) craton. According to Cahen (1984), the African orogenic history indicates that the bulk of this craton was stabilised after an early Proterozoic orogeny.

Fig. 1 (a) Cratons and mobile belts in West Africa; (b) Pan-African mobile belts and stable areas with cratonic cover; A: cratonic areas where Pan-African supracrustals are covered by the Phanerozoic; B: cratonic areas stripped of Pan-African cover. (after Petters) (after Petters, 1991; Cahen and Snelling, 1984)

The history of the tectonic evolution of Africa is based on a collection of radiometric ages. The geochronological subdivisions of the Archean proposed here are those recommended by the International Union of Geological Sciences (in Cahen, 1984). This geochronological framework is divided by successive boundaries. The most significant for Africa occurred at 2.5 billions years for the Archean-Proterozoic boundary, 950 Myr for the Middle-Late Proterozoc boundary. Condie (1989) emphasised two major worlwide orogenic episodes that affect especially the African continent: one in the late Archean (Kibaran) (1500–1000 Myr) and the Pan-African (800–500,000 years) events affected largely the Gondwana continent and seem to play a strong role in the tectonic history of Africa. Some poorly developed Paleozoic sedimentary formations outcrop locally in Ghana, and especially on the mounts of Guinea, Mali, eastern Mauritania, and in various parts of the Sahara and the southern Atlas (Fig. 2). Paleozoic marine transgressions occurred in the Early Silurian, the Mid-Devonian, and the Early Carboniferous. Due to the position of the South Pole in Northwest Africa during the Late Ordovician, there is widespread evidence of glaciation. With the southward movement of this South Pole, another widespread glaciation affected all of southern Gondwana during the Late Carboniferous-Permian. This was followed by phases of igneous activity, which accompanied this continent-wide phase of rifting from the end of the Karoo sedimentation to the initiation of the East-African Rift System. Some of these volcanic complexes are still active today. The major volcanic activity is located on the East African Rift System, which might possibly be incipient plate boundaries. This 6400 km long Rift marks the eastern limit of the Congo-Zaire basin and hence the eastern limit of this study.

Fig. 2 Geological outline map of Africa showing basement outcrops and basins. (after Wright et al., 1985)

Following the fragmentation of Gondwana, basins formed along the Atlantic margin, which contain a complete Mesozoic-Cenozoic record. These are filled by a sedimentary sequence, which is almost continuous from the Neocomian to the Burdigalian, with only a break during the Oligocene and the Pliocene. The distribution of the various deposits is controlled by the tectonic behaviour of the basement. The first essentially continental infilling of the Rift was separated from the upper marine sediments by a mighty calcareous-evaporitic series which deposited behind the screen of barrier reefs. These upper terms are essentially argillaceous where the detritic occurrences increase on the border of the basin.

Major basins of Africa formed during the break-up of Gondwana, and include Mesozoic to Quaternary rocks of limited thickness. Tertiary and Quaternary deposits have accumulated in the centre of the Congolese Basin as the Bateke Series that outcrop largely through eastern Gabon and central Congo.

2 Morphological Setting

In a first approach, one can compare the African continent to a large basin, with a raised border. This old continent shows little effect of the Mesozoic-Cenozoic orogenesis except in the Atlas Mountains in northern Africa. Consequently, the topography of Africa is characterised by long-term development of erosion surfaces and intensely leached residual soils. These processes have operated over the last 450Myr. This morphology is partially controlled by the inheritance of Precambrian basement with ancient mountain belts, which have been completely scraped and exposed at their deep roots (Fig. 3). The most significant lowlands are the Senegal-Mauritania basin, the Niger basin, the Volta basin, the Chad basin and especially the Congo basin. The highlands surrounding-basins include the Saharan central blocks of Hoggar, Tibesti, and Dafour, Guinean Ridge and Fouta Djallon, Ghana-Togo mounts and Atakora, Cameroon Line and Adamaoua, Ubangui Ridge, meridian chains of Cristal Mounts, Chaillu, and Mayombe. These uplands are of variable altitude, but are highest where capped by volcanic flows as in central West Africa.

Fig. 3 Main features of the Africa relief from Sahara to Kalahari. (after Wauthy, 1983)

Another characteristics of this old African landscape are inselbergs. These are small isolated steep-sided residual hills made of resistant siliceous intrusive rocks. Very high bastions with impressive relief break the monotony of the extreme low-relief erosion surface. Inselbergs are especially well developed in open woodlands and grasslands on the plateau country such as the savanna region of West Africa.

Generally, the continent as a whole appears to be tilted to the northwest. It is higher in the eastern and southern parts where the mean altitude is ca. 1,000 m, and lower in the west and the south with a mean altitude of 500 m. The higher relief is set along the eastern rift and around the Kalahari basin and the Upper Zambezi basin.

Uplift has been steady, but there is evidence of rejuvenation during the fragmentation of Gondwana and, associated with the episodes of Atlantic drainage systems bear the imprints of Neogene uplift in that they are frequently interrupted by waterfalls and rapids.

Most of the Precambrian basement is impermeable to water infiltration, as are the thick soils developed on the surface. River deposits, or locally Mesozoic-Cenozoic sediments form the main aquifers. Sub-surface drainage is facilitated by the fault networks.


Petters SW. Regional Geology of Africa. In: Berlin: Springer; 722. Lecture Notes in Earth Sciences. 1991;40.

Cahen L, Snelling NJ. The geochronology and evolution of Africa. London: Oxford University Press; 1984 526.

Condie KC. Plate tectonics and crustal evolution. Oxford: Pergamon; 1989 310.

Wright RP, Hastings DA, Jones WB, Williams HR. Geology and mineral resources of West Africa. London: George Allen & Unwin; 1985.

Wauthy B. Introduction à la climatologie du golfe de Guinée. Océanographie Tropicale. 1983;18:103–108.


Atmospheric Circulation Climatic Mechanisms and African Climate

P. Giresse

1 Atmospheric Mass and Flows

The general atmospheric circulation of tropical West Africa is controlled by various cellular processes. The circulation of the Hadley cells combines air mass movements from Equator to pole at a high altitude and from pole to Equator at low altitude through eastern winds (trade winds). Thus, high- and low-pressure areas are induced, respectively, by downward and upward motions. Consequently, low pressures are produced at the upward convergence of the hemispheric cells (Azores and Saint-Helen). Other atmospheric cell movements are latitudinal. These zonal circulations occur in the intertropical belts and are called Walker cell. At altitudes between 5,000 and 12,000 m, very strong winds (called jets or current-jets) blow from the east, their dynamic fronts are frequently located above the continent and especially in the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ).

Rainfall distribution and seasonally through Africa are controlled mainly by the presence and the opposition of two main atmospheric mass, the so-called action centres (Suchel, 1987). These centres induce the development of powerful air flows that fluctuate through the year giving way to well characterised and well contrasted seasonal climates. Some of these action centres and flows are permanent motors of the tropical atmospheric circulation; some others are the result of a specific situation that prevails during a portion of the year (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1 Mean January and July situation of the atmospheric flows and the action centres. (adapted from Suchel, 1987)

1.1 The Subtropical Anticyclones

In the two hemispheres, a subtropical high-pressure belt extends more or less continuously around the globe near the 30° latitude. These two high-pressure belts are neither homogeneous, nor continuous, especially in the Northern Hemisphere. They are divided to anticyclone cells preferentially located in the eastern part of the oceans in relation to cold sea surface temperature and by the path of cold air masses controlled by polar front circulation. The two cells acting on the African climates are the Azores anticyclone in the Northern Hemisphere and the Saint-Helen anticyclone in the Southern Hemisphere. The first one largely overruns the Sahara during the boreal winter. The second is frequently associated with a South African or Indian anticyclone during the austral winter. In the two Hemispheres, the cells tend to disappear above the continents during the summer, but remain in the high atmosphere: a high-pressure belt is especially observed between 500 and 700 mbar above the Sahara. Generally, the air mass of the cells is subsident and divergent and maintains a marked dryness.

1.2 The Trade Winds

The trade winds of both hemispheres met within the two pressure troughs and constitute the surface flow of the tropical Hadley circulation. The trade winds are well developed in the eastern Atlantic and the neighbouring land areas. The Northern Hemisphere trade winds flow generally from the NE whereas the Southern Hemisphere trade winds circulate from the SE, but both of them tend to curve to the West in response to the anticyclone cell curvature (Fig. 1). The northeastern trade is called harmattan in the whole Sudanian area and is characteristic of the continental air mass. Initially this is very dry air, which becomes dryer as it crosses the Sahara. This subsiding and stable pattern of the harmattan is maintained until meeting the equatorial boundary from which it takes up moisture. Above the Atlantic, the trade air mass is generally stratified with a lower wet and slightly cool layer, and an upper dry and relatively warm layer. This thermal inversion is generally well marked. Near the anticyclonic cells, this inversion is very low (< 500 m) and prevents atmospheric upwelling, thus prohibiting rain development. As trade winds spread over the ocean water, the wet layer becomes thicker, the stability of the atmospheric mass decreases, and the intensity and frequency of the rainfall increases. Finally, all the trade mass becomes a moist process and the upwards air movements take precedence over the horizontal movements. This trade mass merges into the equatorial atmospheric mass. This vertical rain-making structure near the Geographical Equator is called Meteorological Equator by Leroux (1983).

1.3 Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ)

The ITCZ is characterized by low atmospheric pressures (low intertropical pressures), as a consequence of the upward movement induced by the trade winds convergence. It results in high atmospheric pressure in the upper troposphere. It seems that the role of this ITCZ is more-or-less passive in the general circulation unlike the anticyclonic cells (Suchel, 1987). Near the ground, the winds are low, unstable and often only a local breeze. Unless there is a specific disturbance, wind still (doldrums) is common, especially when the low pressures are near the Equator. Generally, at high altitudes over the ocean, the Meteorological Equator remains vertically structured in the vicinity of the Geographical Equator. But, overland, the Meteorological Equator forms an oblique, northward dipping plane in the lower troposphere, the so-called Intertropical Front (ITF) structure or Inclined Meteorological Equator (IME). This plane is the zone of contact of two conflicting atmospheric air-flows, the eastwards oceanic winds and the northeastern continental winds, and a zone of major disturbance. The IME ranges from the Gulf of Guinea to far over the continent. The SE trades change direction after passing the Equator (between 2° and 5° and become the SW monsoon that we will consider later. The eastern equatorial winds maintain prevailing flow of the low atmosphere layers all year round. During the boreal summer, this flow is stronger and thicker. But it is necessary to admit a relative autonomy of this flow because it is acting during boreal winter, at a period in which the monsoon is absent. This ITF migrates seasonally: it reaches its northernmost position around 4° and the NE-trade winds blow off the Liberian coasts onto the Gulf of Guinea as January trades and induce the winter dust plume (Péwé, 1981; Dupont et al., 2000). In accordance with this annual migration, the regions nearest the Equator experience rainfall all year round, while the semi-arid desert fringe receives rains only at the height of the summer. Throughout the year, the mid-troposphere wind systems (jet stream) overlaying the surface circulation generally flows from the east (Leroux, 1983). Another convergence zone the Equatorial African Front or Congo-Zaire Air Boundary separates the flows of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.

2 Climatic Mechanisms and Seasonal Variations

The seasonal reversal of atmosphere circulation and the precipitation patterns associated with the African monsoon are dominant components of tropical climate variability. Monsoon circulation results from the differing heat capacities of land and ocean. Sensible heat warms land surfaces much more rapidly than the ocean mixed layer.

2.1 Low Thermal Pressures of the Sahara

Sensible and latent heat over the Sahara during boreal summer drives the inflow of moisture-laden air from the adjacent eastern equatorial Atlantic. Thus, the Azores anticyclone is moved northwest and the coastal areas of Maghreb are still the only areas where the pressure is slightly higher than the average. Over the Sahara, the barometric condition is largely opposite to that prevailing during the winter where a relative high-pressure situation develops. During the summer this low-pressure area adds to the latitudinal movement of the ITCZ. However, it is admitted that the most important driving force of the atmospheric circulation during this period of austral winter is the Saint-Helen anticyclone. The anticyclonic cell expands toward the Equator and becomes especially active as a consequence of powerful Antarctic outlets.

2.2 The Monsoon

This name refers to the southwestern oceanic inflows that cross the Equator and penetrate into northwestern Africa during the boreal summer. The summer monsoon winds deliver sporadic but intense precipitation, which nourishes the Sahel. Beyond the coastal region, this monsoon is a relatively well-defined flow coming from SSW, SW, or WSW. Then, during its progress over the continent, it bends to the east and slows down. Due to its direction and speed, this monsoon is not clearly distinguished from the general westerly circulation that prevails all year round in the equatorial region. The monsoon takes on individual characteristics since the time when thermal depressions begin to get wider above the Sahara, namely during May–June. The IME, yet in a northern position, takes its place rapidly on this low-pressure mass whereas the Saint-Helen anticyclonic cell is growing just at the south of the Equator. The monsoon extends beyond the boundary of the permanent westerly circulation. It follows the IME during its northward course from May to August bringing precipitations in the Southern Sahara. Because of its very high water content (near the saturation value) and of the great thickness of the wet layer (generally more than 3,000 m thick), the monsoon atmosphere is characterised by a very important potential instability. It is admitted that the active evaporation of the warm waters of the Bay of Biafra plays an important role in the moistening of this oceanic air. When the monsoon direction converges markedly with the direction of the NE continental trade wind, it results in a direct edge-to-edge contact. The perturbations are particularly violent at the south of the IME when monsoon pulses break out, mostly during its periods of moving in and of retreat. The resulting rainfall is induced by simple atmospheric upward movement (thermal convection rainfall and geographic turbulence rainfall) and by complex phenomenons induced by kinematic or frontal processes (perturbation rainfall). The monsoon moist atmosphere is favourable to thermal convection rainfall with big drops and characteristic cumulonimbus with a strong vertical development and a strong convection (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2 Seasonal climatic variation at Abidjan, Ivory Coast as representative of the African rain forest. Evaporation-Transpiration budget, sea-surface temperature, air temperature and characteristic clouds; A C, Alto-cumulus, Cu, Cumulus, NS, Nimbus-Stratus, SC, Strato-Cumulus, Cl, Cirrus, CB, budding Cumulus. (after Drochon, 1976; Maley, 1989)

The monsoon atmosphere is also favourable to geographic turbulence rainfall associated to movements induced by the unevenness of the relief. Perturbation rainfalls are characterised by a strong atmospheric roughness and thunderstorm activity with violent squalls and outbursts of rain.

The seasonal fluctuations are controlled by the consequent latitudinal translation of high- and low-pressure areas induced by the successive positions of earth and sun. However, the alteration of the action centres and flows is lagging behind the cosmic events. In Africa, the farthest position is generally reached during January in the south and during August in the north. There is no geographical symmetry as the ITCZ moves at a higher distance from the equator during boreal summer than during austral summer. This asymmetry would result from the larger extent of the continental area in the Northern Hemisphere. This extent results in a large surface thermal low during the summer warming whereas the equatorward cold polar atmosphere spreading is made easier above the oceanic surface. Taking into account this northward extent of the Africa continent, the IME moves largely beyond Lake Chad frequently reaching Tibesti and even Hoggar. But by January, the IME pulls back only to 5°S and only during a short period.

2.3 Southern Hemisphere

In the Southern Hemisphere, the climate and hydro-graphic conditions are controlled principally by the presence of a major high-pressure area, the centre of which is located at about 28°S and 13°W in July. In January, a major low-pressure is centred over central equatorial Africa, but moves far to the northeast by July. Offshore, the anticyclone circulation associated with this situation gives rise to dominantly southeast trade winds in the entire area. These southeast trade winds are the result of partly driving the Benguela Current (see Chapter 6). As a result of the presence of major cold-water mass adjacent to shore, continental winds very near the coast tend to be relatively dry. In particular, a stratiform cloud cover produced by the cold Atlantic waters causes a cooling and drying of the adjacent land areas. These clouds form persistent covers, producing little or no rain, but intercepting solar radiation and causing lower temperatures (Maley, 1987; Maley et al., 2000). These clouds are able to spread far in the hinterland. During the austral winter, a stratiform cloud atmosphere that is able to penetrate the continent by 800 km permanently covers Gabon forest. Poor convection and fine drop or no rain characterises these stratiform clouds. This fresh cover is held responsible for the survival of the forest. In the interior of Angola and South West Africa are the Berg winds (Bornhold, 1973). These hot, dry, east winds blow from the plateau and are generally vigorous, gusty and laden with dust and sand. These winds occur commonly in the austral winter, lasting for several hours to several days.

The prevailing control of the upwelling process on the sea surface and the air temperature on the evaporation-transpiration budget and the nature of the cloud cover is illustrated by the climatic scheme of Abidjan (Fig. 2).

3 Climatic Zonation and Annual Rainfall Variability

Annual mean rainfall (Figs. 3 and 4) largely controls the climatic zonation of Africa. The analysis of rainfall on a continental scale was made possible by the comprehensive data set, which was compiled by Nicholson (1986) and then updated by Shinoda and Iwasaki (1989). In the Northern Hemisphere, the climatic belts correspond to a latitudinal zonation. The semi-arid zone of 200–800 mm annual rainfall corresponds roughly to the region of dry woodlands, natural savanna or grasslands of Walter (1968). This zone lies to the south of the Sahara Desert in the Northern Hemisphere. Double-peaked precipitation regimes are characteristic for the latitude in between, for instance at Lagos (Nigeria) or Sassandra (Ivory Coast) along the northern coast of the Gulf of Guinea. Further north in West Africa, yearly precipitation falls as summer boreal rain and depends on the strength and spreading of the SW monsoon. Along the coast of Togo and Benin, precipitation is less than either to its west or to east. This climatic anomaly is presently restricted to a narrow coastal area and partly coincides to the separation of the Guinean and the Congolian rain forest areas (see Chapter 3). The area in excess of 1,600-mm annual rainfall around the equator corresponds roughly to the region of evergreen rainforest. It is distributed along the coast of the Gulf of Guinea and throughout the Congo basin.

Fig. 3 Climatic zonation of Africa; details for eastern Africa are not shown. (after Landsberg et al., 1963 and Bornhold, 1973)

Fig. 4 Mean Annual rainfall and regional divisions. Annual means are derived from the Nicholson African rainfall data set. Unit: 100 ram. Dark shaded area: over 1,600 mm. Light shaded area: 200–800 mm. Cross mark: rainfall observation station. Thin broken line: the contour of 1,000 mm. (after Shinoda and Iwasaki, 1989)

In the Southern Hemisphere with year round rainfall, summer rains also prevail during austral summers. North of 2°S, nearshore winds are influenced by the onshore-directed monsoon wind system and show a clockwise rotation. Most of the coastal region receives very little rainfall it decreases from north to south. Relatively important rains in Angola come in summer (October–April) and are chiefly convectional. In the south, rains appear as occasional showers in late summer. However, east of Mocamedes, Angola, on the plateau, the rainfall is more than 100 mm/year resulting in the almost annual flooding of the rivers of Angola. The isohyets are closely parallel to the coast owing to the rapid rise in relief (Fig. 5). The semi-arid zone of 200–800 mm lies within the Kalahari Desert and its peripheral. As previously mentioned, minimal rainfall in the coastal zone is caused by the cold waters of the Benguela Current and the coastal upwelling area that lower evaporation and reduces convection.

Fig. 5 Coefficient of the variability of annual rainfall (standard deviation of annual totals/annual mean). Standard deviations and annual mean are derived from the Nicholson African rainfall data set. Unit: %. Shaded area: 20–40%. (after Shinoda and Iwasaki, 1989)

A recent analysis of rainfall data compilation to 1987 (Shinoda and Iwasaki, 1989) made it possible to study the annual rainfall variability and its interhemispheric coherence (Fig. 5). Generally, the semi-arid zone exhibits a high variability of annual rainfall from 20% to 40% and droughts are frequent and severe. The western Sahel experienced three major droughts early in the first decades of this century, in the early 1940s, and from the late 1980s to the mid 1980s; two major wet periods intercalated in the 1930s and 1950s. The northeastern Kalahari in the Southern Hemisphere showed five major droughts, early on the first decades of the century, in the 1930s, the late 1940s, the 1960s and the early 1980s; also four major wet periods, in the 1920s, around 1940, in the 1950s and the 1970s. An interhemispheric correspondence of rainfall variation is evidenced in the droughts periods of the early 1910s, from the late 1960s to the early 1970s and the early 1980s. Concerning the wet period, the concurrence is restricted to the 1950s. On the other side, the 1970s evidenced a contrasting trend between the two Hemispheres, in fact the Sahel demonstrated a drought, whereas the Kalahari experienced a wet episode. The decrease in rainfall from the early 1950s to the early 1970s is registered in both hemispheres. However, rainfall still continued to decrease only in the Northern Hemisphere until the mid-1980s that confirms the discharge fiver trends (see Chapter 4).

Roucou et al. (2000) show that the variability of interannual rainfall is linked to coherent spatial structure called modes. The spatial structures are generally wider in the semi-arid or tropical belts than in the evergreen forest areas: the significance of global forcing is evidenced for rainfall variability of the Sahel whereas local factors seem frequently prevailling in the forest environment. It is demonstrated that Sahel rainfalls are mainly linked to the sea surface temperature anomalies in the Atlantic where warm/cool anomalies in north/south Atlantic induce favourable conditions for the monsoon development. It is demonstrated that Atlantic anomalies are not able to induce significant rainfall anomalies on the African continent by themselves, but significantly inflect the climatic result during an ENSO period. Some anomalies are susceptible to inhibit the monsoon extent but lower the ENSO impact. On the basis of a 1951–1990 study, positive correlations of coherent spatial structure are suggested by the same authors: for 35.8% of the variance a northern/southern opposition is proposed; for 12% of the variance, there is a positive correlation between the two forest blocks of the two Hemispheres. But one must admit that there’s not enough evidence to suggest regularities for the fluctuations.

The most exhaustive records of rainfall variability over Africa on time scales of decades to millennia were successively presented by Nicholson (1986, 1993, 1995, 2000) monsoon extent but lower the ENSO impact. On the basis of a 1951–1990 study, positive correlations of coherent spatial structure are suggested by the same authors: for 35.8% of the variance a northern/southern opposition is proposed; for 12% of the variance, there is a positive correlation between the two forest blocks of the two hemispheres. But one must admit that there’s not enough evidence to suggest regularities for the fluctuations.

The most exhaustive records of rainfall variability over Africa on time scales of decades to millennia were successively presented by Nicholson (1986, 1993, 1995, 2000). They were produced using a combination of historical information, nineteenth century rainfall records, and statistical relationships among various sectors of Africa. They suggest significant differences in the causal mechanism driving rainfall variability in Southern and Northern Hemisphere of Africa, but a relative synchronicity of rainfall variations in the two Hemispheres. Caution is needed in assuming that SSTs force decade variability over Africa. In various circumstances, rainfall changes may anticipate SSTs changes or may lag them by several years. The hypothesis is that the changes in soil moisture, vegetal cover, albedo induced by abnormally high or low rainfall may in turn modifying the large-scale atmosphere. It is quite possible that such feedback induces the strong year-to-year persistence of Sahel rainfall variability. This characteristic seems absent in southern-hemisphere sectors of Africa. Nicholson (2000) concluded to the necessity to distinguish between the factors producing the mean climate over Africa, which are quite diverse from region to region, and the more uniform factors controlling the temporal variability of rainfall. The latter involve atmospheric circulation, monsoon intensities or sea-surface temperature.


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Characteristics of the Soils and Present Day Vegetation of Tropical West Africa

P. Giresse

1 Characteristics of the Soils of Tropical West Africa

Almost all the tropical soils are represented in the western part of the African continent. According to Pedro (1968), the latitudinal factor plays a dominant role in the distribution of these soils, which means that the prevalent parameters of the maturation are essentially bioclimatic. However, the quality and type of soil depends also on the parent material from which the soils are derived. Thus, African soils are very variable, and for each climatic type, there are both highly productive and very poor soils. The age of the soils must be also taken into account, one, for example, can note evidence of savanna soils in a present forest landscape. In the tropical regions, pedogenesis can be continuous during at least several hundred thousands of years. Also, due to the long-term pattern of land use, a given soil type expected for a climatic belt may have been drastically altered, making the overall distribution of soils very complicated. Numerous tropical soils of the western part of Africa are deep and mature, and also relatively impoverished.

Through western and central Africa, one can distinguish three major types of soils linked to bioclimatic conditions: sub-desert soils, ferrallitic soils, and ferruginous tropical soils (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1 Schematic map of African soils for the western and central parts of the continent. (after Eschenbrenner et al., 1984)

In a latitudinal belt comparable to the Sahel, sub-desert soils are prevalent. They are generally well provided in nutriments, but shallow and lacking in organic material. The driest areas are characterised by sand and pebbles and the upland soils are usually thin and stony. A similar type of soil is observed again in the Southern Hemisphere, along the coastal plains of Angola, before the boundary with the Namib Desert.

Red and ferruginous lateritic ironstones cover large parts of West Africa, including the Congo-Zaire basin; these areas receive between 150 and 1,250 mm annual rainfall and the vegetation is of savanna woodland type. More intensely weathered soils are characteristic of the wettest regions, where high and dense forest vegetation protects the regolith from erosion. These soils, called latosols or ferrallitic soils are red or yellow in colour and they may be several metres deep. The yellow latosols are more extensive under humid climate and in low depressions. The accumulation is especially goethite and gibbsite-rich, namely hydrated minerals. The red latosols are generally located upstream, near the top of the hills or near the edges of the plateau when the ground water is deep.

The accumulation products are less hydrated or dehydrated species like hematite and kaolinite. However, in several examples, red latosols are not exactly soils but the product of ironcrusts disruptions (Nahon et al., 1977). The ferrallitic soils are especially widespread in equatorial Africa, between 5°N and 10°S, and continue along the northern coastal belt of the Gulf of Guinea up to the Guinea Mountains with a gap on the Ghana coast. These soils generally are old, deep, and chemically impoverished. The topsoil is frequently rich in organic matter but may not be more than a few centimetres thick. Replenishment of organic matter is very rapid through decomposition of leaves, branches and tree trunks by microorganisms.

Areas with 250–600 mm/year of rain (semi-arid) are characterised by ferruginous soils, which are sometimes alkaline, but may also be slightly acidic, when heavily leached. They are also typical of marked seasonal contrast and are preferentially located in the concave parts of the landscape with a deep groundwater level. The accumulation horizons combine hydrated and dehydrated minerals.

Dark brown or black vertisols are also distributed in these intermediate latitudes and are located on low plains where they are flooded by occasional rains or by large rivers. They are common in some inland drainage areas, such as the southeastern Chad basin, the region of Logone-Chari, and the northern part of Cameroon. These soils are heavy and calcareous, consisting mainly of montmorillonite, hydrated mica. Calcium and magnesium are trapped in the lattice during the dry season.

The best soils are found at high altitudes (Guinea Mountains, Ghana-Togo and Atakora Mountains, Cameroon Mountains, and Adamawa block). They are deep loamy soils derived from basalts and other Tertiary volcanics. They are generally well drained but liable to erosion by gullies (as along the Mbam River, Cameroon). These soils are highly variable: young soils poorly evolved, black soils or andosols including very hydrated minerals (imogolite, halloysite, gibbsite, and ferrihydrite). Various podzolic soils are also associated with the relief or more especially with the hemispheric hill (half-orange structure). The iron and the aluminium were leached from the white horizons and deposited as goethite and gibbsite (hydrated minerals).

Lastly, hydromorphic mineral soils, generally grey and mottled are observed in the low grounds of the wet regions: coastal or delta swamps or flood valleys of the great rivers or Central Cuvette of the Congo basin. These soils are kaolinitic and iron-poor.

2 Present Day Vegetation

Modern vegetation zones of tropical West Africa are controlled by the nature of the soil and by the water availability. According to successive classifications and successive maps, various major vegetation types can be discerned. A simple and synthetic distribution in relation to annual rainfall is proposed by Grove (1978), namely three major types: the tropical forest, the tropical savanna, and the tropical forest, the tropical savanna, and the steppe and desert (Fig. 2a).

Fig. 2 (a) Distribution of major vegetation zones in relation to annual rainfall; (b) The main areas of vegetation in western and central Africa. (after Grove, 1985) (after Wauthy, 1983)

The tropical rain forest is restricted to lowlands areas with rainfall throughout the year (lowland humid forest). The annual rainfall usually exceeds 1,400 mm/year and temperature ranges between 21 °C and 32 °C. Wide areas of the Congo drainage basin of Gabon and Cameroon are tropical rain forest regions.

The tropical savanna in the Southern Hemisphere occupies a large area of Angola and the southern Congo watershed. In the Northern Hemisphere, the savanna belt occupies plateaus. The northern limit of sub-humid grassland regions extends south of the Gambia River. Generally, the distribution of savanna coincides with pene-plains where logging and moisture deficiency alternate.

Steppe and desert are restricted to regions where annual precipitation is less than 400 ram/year. As for the tropical savanna, a symmetric distribution on both sides of the equator is present in parts of semi-arid West Africa (Senegal, Mali, and Niger). In the southern part of Africa, gradual preponderance of the savanna southwards into wooded steppe and thorn scrub has been described (southern Angola and Namibia).

A simplified map of the main vegetation areas (Fig. 2b) has been proposed (Wauthy, 1983; Mahé, 1993). The specific role of the Atlantic monsoon controls the permanence of the humid forest on the northern coast of the Gulf of Guinea whereas at the same latitude in eastern Africa, sub-desert is prevalent. The lush vegetation is enhanced by an important water supply that is able to permanently saturate a deeply weathered mantle. But the same vegetation is also present on recent volcanic blocks like the Cameroon Mountains where precipitation is abundant and regular. Along the coastal mountains of Guinea, rainfall goes up to 3–5 m/year, but a longer dry season controls a gap of the humid forest in the Ghana region. In the Congo basin, in spite of lower