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Millions of people in Africa's Sahel region depend on the West African monsoon to irrigate their agricultural land, but climatologists are unable to say with much accuracy when the rains will come.

Nor can their models agree on whether the Sahel will be wetter or drier in the future — a worrying gap, given that its weather systems affect the entire planet.

This has prompted a consortium of over 400 researchers to step up climate monitoring in the region, reports Catherine Brahic in this article in Science.

Africa's network of 1,152 weather stations covers a mere eighth of the minimum density recommended by the World Meteorological Organization, which could explain why predictions are so divergent.

The ten-year, US$50 million African Monsoon Multidisciplinary Analysis (AMMA) project aims to improve regional forecasts and global climate models by supplying more data.

Since its launch in 2001, AMMA has restored a network of high-tech stations that release atmospheric sensors carried by helium-filled balloons. This year it is undertaking a season of more intense data gathering, monitoring every aspect of the monsoon.

The monsoon arrived several weeks late this year, and AMMA researchers hope to discover whether this was just a one-off — or a sign of things to come.

Link to full article in Science