Articles | Volume 8, issue 4
Earth Syst. Dynam., 8, 1141–1170, 2017

Special issue: Climate, land use, and conflict in Africa

Earth Syst. Dynam., 8, 1141–1170, 2017

Research article 13 Dec 2017

Research article | 13 Dec 2017

Desertification, resilience, and re-greening in the African Sahel – a matter of the observation period?

Hannelore Kusserow Hannelore Kusserow
  • Department of Earth Sciences, Institute of Geographical Sciences, Remote Sensing and Geoinformatics, Freie Universität Berlin, Berlin, Germany

Abstract. Since the turn of the millennium various scientific publications have been discussing a re-greening of the Sahel after the 1980s drought mainly based on coarse-resolution satellite data. However, the author's own field studies suggest that the situation is far more complex and that both paradigms, the encroaching Sahara and the re-greening Sahel, need to be questioned.

This paper discusses the concepts of desertification, resilience, and re-greening by addressing four main aspects: (i) the relevance of edaphic factors for a vegetation re-greening, (ii-iii) the importance of the selected observation period in the debate on Sahel greening or browning, and (iv) modifications in the vegetation pattern as possible indicators of ecosystem changes (shift from originally diffuse to contracted vegetation patterns).

The data referred to in this paper cover a time period of more than 150 years and include the author's own research results from the early 1980s until today. A special emphasis, apart from fieldwork data and remote sensing data, is laid on the historical documents.

The key findings summarised at the end show the following: (i) vegetation recovery predominantly depends on soil types; (ii) when discussing Sahel greening vs. Sahel browning, the majority of research papers only focus on post-drought conditions. Taking pre-drought conditions (before the 1980s) into account, however, is essential to fully understand the situation. Botanical investigations and remote-sensing-based time series clearly show a substantial decline in woody species diversity and cover density compared to pre-drought conditions; (iii) the self-organised patchiness of vegetation is considered to be an important indicator of ecosystem changes.

Short summary
Sahel greening and browning are discussed based on the relevance of edaphic factors, the importance of the observation period, and modifications in the vegetation pattern. The key findings are that (i) vegetation recovery predominantly depends on soil types, (ii) botanical investigations and EO-based time series show a substantial decline in the diversity and cover density of woody species compared to pre-drought conditions, (iii) and pattern formation is a key indicator for ecosystem changes.
Final-revised paper