Monsoons in a Changing Climate

This page submitted by Julie Bartley and communicates the module authored by Jim Dontje (Gustavus Adolphus College)
Gustavus Adolphus College, Geology
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This presentation provides a general overview of how the monsoon rains "work" in general and specifically in the context of the African Sahel, an exploration of the changes that have been occurring with the monsoon rains, and one hypothesis of why those changes are occurring that demonstrates climate feedback. It concludes with an illustration of how those changes are affecting the people who live there and generating political instability. In particular, it focuses on how vegetation and land use may reinforce to "lock-in" climate changes. Students are asked to prepare for the class through readings and the class time (50 minutes to 80 minutes, depending on the depth of the discussion) is used for a presentation on the topic. The presentation is not intended to fully explain the monsoons in the Sahel, but rather to illustrate the complexity of the system and how human activities might affect it.

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Learning Goals

  1. Students will be able to describe how the monsoon rains 'work' in general and, specifically, in the African Sahel.
  2. Students will be able to relate changes in the monsoon to climate feedbacks.
  3. Students can explain the ways in which monsoon changes might affect the people who live in the Sahel and the political stability of the region.

Context for Use

The PowerPoint presentation is set up to be a standalone presentation inserted in a class where the issues of climate change, geography and human culture are the focus. It was originally developed for an anthropology class that focused on the lives of nomadic and transhumant livestock herders whose livelihood and culture are intimately connected to landscape and climate. While the case study focuses on the Sahel in sub-Saharan Africa, it issues are germane to other parts of the world where the monsoon rains are a vital part of the culture and economy.

This lesson was developed for liberal arts students taking a special topics course in anthropology focusing on pastoralists. The course was aimed at students who have the ability to read somewhat technical articles with understanding.

Description and Teaching Materials

With the preparation of the readings, the class presentation (notes are included in the PowerPoint) walks students through the background on the monsoon in the Sahel, the human cultural systems that exist in that climate, and the different climate mechanisms that affect the monsoon.
Using the NASA report, the presentation argues the plausibility the feedback effects from vegetation can influence changes in the monsoon. Then, it illustrates how these climate issues can at least exacerbate, if not outright cause, political instability using the Ivory Coast and Nigeria examples.

Teaching Notes and Tips

There are various of explanations for droughts in the Sahel. A key thing to emphasize is that climate change is not a single factor issue. While greenhouse gases are causing shifts in the climate, other factors like human land use (notably deforestation) have an influence also, as well as ongoing dynamics that are still in play (e.g. El Nino).


Assessment will depend on the context where this presentation is used. Ideally, the assessment will look for a clear demonstration that students have understood the main points of the presentation and have made connections between those ideas and the rest of the course.