Rainfall variability over Malawi during the late nineteenth century

David Nash, Kathleen Pribyl, Georgina H. Endfield, Jørgen Klein, George Adamson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Establishing long-term records of rainfall variability is essential for understanding changes in the magnitude and frequency of extreme events. The need is particularly pressing for much of Africa, where the instrumental meteorological record rarely stretches back beyond the early twentieth century. This study extends the rainfall record for present-day Malawi back to the mid-nineteenth century through the analysis of historical documentary materials from British and African archives. Textual evidence within documents is used to construct a semi-quantitative chronology of rainfall variability spanning the period 1858-1900. Widespread and severe droughts are identified during the austral summer rainy seasons of 1861-63, 1877-79, 1885-88 and 1892-94, and two unusually wet periods in 1889-92 and 1894-98. Instrumental rainfall data from Cape Maclear, Bandawe and Kaningina, spanning the period 1876-80 - the earliest so far discovered for Malawi - are compared with nearby long-term records from the Global Historical Climatology Network database. These analyses confirm the classifications for the equivalent years in the semi-quantitative chronology. The results of this study are considered alongside other annually-resolved rainfall reconstructions for the southern African summer rainfall zone to assess the spatial extent of late-nineteenth century drought and wetter episodes, and to explore the distribution of teleconnections arising from historical El Niño events. The very strong 1877 El Niño event was associated with drought from northern Malawi to the Eastern Cape. In contrast, drier conditions during the strong 1885 El Niño extended from Malawi as far south as the southern Kalahari, with Lesotho and KwaZulu-Natal experiencing relatively wet conditions. The very strong 1891 El Niño was associated with very wet conditions from Malawi to KwaZulu-Natal. In contrast, wetter conditions only extended as far south as Zimbabwe following the moderate 1896 El Niño. The study concludes with suggestions on how to extend historical climate information for the region.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)e629-e642
Number of pages14
JournalInternational Journal of Climatology
Issue numberS1
Publication statusPublished - 11 Jan 2018

Bibliographical note

This is the peer reviewed version of the following article: Nash, D.J., Pribyl, K., Endfield, G.H., Klein, J. and Adamson, G.C.D. (2018), Rainfall variability over Malawi during the late 19th century. Int. J. Climatol, which has been published in final form at doi:10.1002/joc.5396. This article may be used for non-commercial purposes in accordance with Wiley Terms and Conditions for Self-Archiving.


  • Historical climatology
  • documentary evidence
  • drought
  • El Niño
  • Africa


Dive into the research topics of 'Rainfall variability over Malawi during the late nineteenth century'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this