Historical rainfall trends in South Africa: 1921–2015

  • A.C. Kruger
  • M.P. Nxumalo
Keywords: rainfall trends, extreme rainfall, climate change, South Africa


The aim of this study is to update the analysis of historical rainfall trends with reference to the work from previous studies, through optimizing the highest spatial resolution with the longest possible period of analysis, i.e., 1921–2015. Two interlinked datasets, namely the district rainfall and individual rainfall stations datasets were used for the trend analyses, namely, daily time series of 60 individual rainfall stations and the daily district rainfall of 88 of 94 rainfall districts in South Africa. The extreme precipitation indices defined by the World Meteorological Organization Expert Team on Climate Change Detection and Indices were applied. In general, the results show an increase in rainfall for most rainfall stations in the southern interior of South Africa, and indications of decreases in rainfall in the far northern and north-eastern parts. The increase in the annual rainfall in the south is reflected in the seasonal trends, where summer rainfall shows a similar increase, but also extends into the central interior. For other seasons, most of the country shows no significant historical trends in annual total rainfall. From the extreme rainfall analyses, an increase in daily rainfall extremes in the southern to western interior is apparent. Also, most of the country experienced increases in the intensity of daily rainfall, which confirms global results in general. Decreases in rainfall from wet spells were noted in most places over the east and north-east, while the southern and eastern parts along the escarpment experienced shorter annual dry spells. This study improves on previous studies in the region by more than doubling the analysis period, largely eliminating the influence that decadal-scale cycles might have on analyses over shorter periods. However, some differences in the trend results compared to previous studies are apparent, e.g., less pronounced drying in the east and the previously observed increase in rainfall in the western and southern interior not extending as far as the south-western Cape. The observed trends broadly confirm those of projected changes in summer rainfall, i.e., an increase in the west and decrease in the east.

Keywords: rainfall trends, extreme rainfall, climate change, South Africa


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eISSN: 0378-4738