Multi-century tree-ring precipitation record reveals increasing frequency of extreme dry events in the upper Blue Nile River catchment

Mulugeta Mokria*, Aster Gebrekirstos, Abrham Abiyu, Meine Van Noordwijk, Achim Bräuning

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

19 Citations (Scopus)


Climate-related environmental and humanitarian crisis are important challenges in the Great Horn of Africa (GHA). In the absence of long-term past climate records in the region, tree-rings are valuable climate proxies, reflecting past climate variations and complementing climate records prior to the instrumental era. We established annually resolved multi-century tree-ring chronology from Juniperus procera trees in northern Ethiopia, the longest series yet for the GHA. The chronology correlates significantly with wet-season (r = .64, p < .01) and annual (r = .68, p < .01) regional rainfall. Reconstructed rainfall since A.D. 1811 revealed significant interannual variations between 2.2 and 3.8 year periodicity, with significant decadal and multidecadal variations during 1855-1900 and 1960-1990. The duration of negative and positive rainfall anomalies varied between 1-7 years and 1-8 years. Approximately 78.4% (95%) of reconstructed dry (extreme dry) and 85.4% (95%) of wet (extreme wet) events lasted for 1 year only and corresponded to historical records of famine and flooding, suggesting that future climate change studies should be both trend and extreme event focused. The average return periods for dry (extreme dry) and wet (extreme wet) events were 4.1 (8.8) years and 4.1 (9.5) years. Extreme-dry conditions during the 19th century were concurrent with drought episodes in equatorial eastern Africa that occurred at the end of the Little Ice Age. El Niño and La Niña events matched with 38.5% and 50% of extreme-dry and extreme-wet events. Equivalent matches for positive and negative Indian Ocean Dipole events were weaker, reaching 23.1 and 25%, respectively. Spatial correlations revealed that reconstructed rainfall represents wet-season rainfall variations over northern Ethiopia and large parts of the Sahel belt. The data presented are useful for backcasting climate and hydrological models and for developing regional strategic plans to manage scarce and contested water resources. Historical perspectives on long-term regional rainfall variability improve the interpretation of recent climate trends.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)5436-5454
JournalGlobal Change Biology
Issue number12
Early online date23 Aug 2017
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2017


  • Climate variability
  • Dendroclimatology
  • East Africa
  • El Niño-Southern Oscillation
  • Extreme events
  • Famine and flooding
  • Indian ocean dipole
  • Little Ice Age

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