Corals in the Red Sea Offer Long-term View of South Asian Monsoon

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. (Photo by Konrad Hughen, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

April 15, 2019

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 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 findings, published online March 28, 2019 in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, show that monsoon winds have indeed increased over the past centuries. 

“The south Asian monsoon is incredibly important,” said Konrad Hughen, a paleoclimatologist at WHOI and co-author on the paper. “It’s one of the biggest climate systems on the planet, and supplies water for almost a billion people in India and throughout southern Asia—yet we don’t fully understand its long-term behavior. It’s a very complicated system with lots of moving parts.”

One problem, he added, is that historic records of rainfall over India are based on limited points in space with high variability, and calculating averages across a broad region is difficult. Researchers have limited means to verify long-term trends in those records, due to a scarcity of information about weather patterns before instrumental records began.

Hughen and his colleagues were able to uncover that information thanks to the behavior of the monsoon winds themselves. 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. The winds are then funneled through the Tokar Gap, a narrow mountain pass in eastern Sudan, where the dust they contain spills out into the Red Sea.

This dust contains a form of barium,a silvery, alkaline earth metal 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. 

“The barium gives us a proxy for wind,” said Hughen. “The more barium we found in a layer of coral, the more wind was coming through the Tokar Gap during the year it formed. Based on those winds, we can calculate the location of the low pressure systems that caused them, and we found they were directly over the Indian subcontinent. That confirmed the winds’ connection to the monsoon.”

However, the data in the corals seem to suggest that historic records of rainfall may not be telling the entire story, said Hughen. Stronger winds should have increased moisture traveling over the Indian subcontinent, despite records showing rainfall dropping off.  

“It could be that those records simply missed some of the rainfall, especially in the past when they were less reliable,” he said.“Rain is highly variable from one place to another. Sometimes it’s pouring just a few miles from an area that’s not as wet. When you’re recording rainfall at only a few fixed points, you might not be able to capture those sorts of spatial variations.” Alternatively, the divergence between the intensifying monsoon winds and the decreased rainfall could be a result of human activity. In this scenario, an influx of soot and smog spewed into the atmosphere over India may be stifling precipitation overhead, something Hughen isn’t ruling out. 

While additional research is needed to refine these patterns, the coral records show that the strength of the monsoon winds is in fact increasing with time—a trend that’s in keeping 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 could be the “new normal” for future years rather than just an anomaly. 

“We tend to think of the monsoon as affecting just southern Asia and the India Ocean, and instead it’s really extending sideways to west Africa [as well]. It’s not really just one circulation cell, but it really has limbs going east, west and south. In this case, the summer monsoon looks like an octopus, where the limbs are feeding the system. In order to predict exactly what’s going to happen to populations that so depend on this moisture, we need to discern how each limb of this monsoon is behaving and in which way it will do so.” 

Also collaborating on the study were lead author Sean P. Bryan of Colorado State University and formerly a postdoctoral researcher at WHOI, J. Thomas Farrar of WHOI and Kristopher B. Karnauskas of the University of Colorado, Boulder. 

This research was supported by grants to Hughen from NSF and KAUST awards, as well as a WHOI Postdoctoral Fellowship awarded to Sean P. Bryan. All data from the study will be made publicly available online through the NOAA NCDC Paleoclimatology data archive. 

The above information was updated on September 10, 2019 to more accurately reflect the geographic zone through which the Asian monsoon occurs.