Most deserts are a result of the rainshadow effect, cold currents, the subtropical ridges, or a combination of those. Knowing this, how is the Somali desert caused?

It is notable since it has a desert climate close to the equator, which is known for being wet. Furthermore, it is on the East Coast of Africa, and Eastern Coasts within 0 to 45 degrees latitude are almost always wet.

I've searched and read about the rainshadow effect of the Ethiopian highlands causing the rainshadow effect. However, the trade winds go towards the East, which should make Somalia even wetter. I've read about the monsoon effect, which would explain the rainshadow effect... for the summer. In the winter, however, the wind should bring moist air back to Somalia. So if anything, Somalia should be a tropical Mediterranean climate. Reports say that entire years can go by without rain though.

In summary, my question asks for the cause(s) of the Somali desert being so dry and why it isn't a Mediterranean climate.

  • $\begingroup$ @gansub I certainly don't know much about the area, and thought cold SST might be a big factor, but AVHRR suggests SST in the 70s\80s now. And though surfaces obs seem hard to come by, found HCMF (Bosaso) on the coast had Td of 75F (24C) today and plenty of time during the year typically >= 70F (21C). So it seems it must be something more dynamical, and surprise the seabreeze doesn't at least do more. I think I heard something about the AEJ being important in that region's climate back when a student? $\endgroup$ Mar 13, 2021 at 6:56
  • $\begingroup$ @gansub Certainly there can be danger in a single day look, though being March, I'd have figured it should be a middle point for the year. But I see in the frequency of Td >= 70 plot that the highest moisture may be spring and fall, so yeah I guess, not knowing the area at all, that's a sign the upwelling hasn't set in yet? But I think both plots indicate there should be decent periods during the year with enough moisture... so what is limiting things during fall\spring atmospherically, persistent anticyclone? $\endgroup$ Mar 13, 2021 at 11:26
  • $\begingroup$ @gansub can you convert this discussion into an answer? $\endgroup$
    – Gimelist
    Mar 24, 2021 at 12:39
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @gansub there you go $\endgroup$
    – Gimelist
    Jun 11, 2021 at 23:37
  • $\begingroup$ Curious if desertification should be considered... en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Desertification $\endgroup$
    – f.thorpe
    Jun 12, 2021 at 16:30

2 Answers 2


Somalia's dryness despite it's proximity to the equator (which should provide ample opportunities for year round rainfall) has perplexed most meteorologists. In this following answer we will try to explore some of the reasons behind this paradox.

There are three major airflows - the Congo Air(Part of the Congo Air Boundary ) that brings in westerly and south westerly flow to the region and the north east monsoon and the south east monsoon. The issue with both of the monsoons is that the flow is parallel to the shore.

A plot of the climatology of the June- September monsoon(JJAS) shows the winds 850 winds flow parallel to the shore. The winds encounter what is known as a friction differential i.e. the friction over the land is greater than the friction of the ocean surface. Presuming the low pressure is over the land(during the day due to solar radiation) the resulting frictional difference causes the winds to diverge over the coastal areas. For details on this reference (4) explains the math behind it.

enter image description here

The following plot shows the 850 hPa streamfunction over East Africa and is a climatology. Positive values of the streamfunction in the northern hemisphere correspond to low level divergence(enhances subsidence) and negative values to low level wind convergence(enhances ascent). This low level divergence induces subsidence of the air and prevents precipitation.

enter image description here

The climatology of the lower level stream function is shown for the whole year but it does not change much if you take it for any of the two seasons (JJAS) or (NDJF) individually. There is only lower level wind divergence.

enter image description here

The contour lines are the isobars.

I have made my version of Fig 2.29 in (3)(due to copyright) that shows off shore winds parallel to the shore and winds diverging onshore due to the frictional differential. This phenomenon of winds diverging at the coast is not unique to Sonalia but is present everwhere you have coastal deserts and winds flowing parallel to the shore. If the winds did approach the coastline either perpendicular or at an angle then there would be greater low level wind convergence (850 hPa level)as the air would "pile up" at the shore promoting ascent of the air and precipitation. That would be reflected in the climatological 850 hPa wind streamfunction values.

The same off shore south easterly winds cause upwelling along the coast and bring in cooler SSTs. The phenomenon is reversed during the North East Monsoon (Oct - March) the NE winds flow parallel to the shore.

Please note that the lower level wind divergence shown here is for large scale winds and Somalia may indeed get some rains due to a mesoscale phenomenon known as the Sea Breeze front but that depends on whether the coastline is convex or concave over a short distance.

Somalia does get some rains due to the westerly flow due to some combination of mid latitude disturbances and tropical influences and these are known as the Gu rains. The Ethopian Highlands and the East African Rift Valley act as a barrier for the westerly moist laden flow (and the Somalian region is the leeward region) but some amount of moisture does slip by through the transition period in between the two seasons.

Finally reference (2) also talks of the Pacific Warm Pool extending into t he Indian Ocean and the Walker Cell due to the Indian Monsoon westerlies rising over the East Indian Ocean and causing subsidence over the Arabian Sea.

References :

  1. Nicholson, S. E. (2011), Dryland Climatology, 516 pp., Cambridge Univ. Press, New York.Dryland Climatology

  2. Nicholson, S. E. (2017), Climate and climatic variability of rainfall over eastern Africa, Rev. Geophys., 55,590–635,East African climate and rainfall

  3. Warner, T. T., 2004: Desert Meteorology. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 595 pp Desert Meteorology

  4. Bryson, R. A., and P. M. Kuhn, 1961: Stress-differential induced divergence with application to littoral precipitation. Erdkunde, 15, 287–294.Friction Induced Differential

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    $\begingroup$ Great answer I had missed. I set about trying to work together an answer back around that time, after being dissatisfied with the reasoning in other answers, but just wasn't coming up with much of a consistent picture, but your answer is great. Had Dr. Nicholson as a professor in grad school, shoulda had a better understanding! $\endgroup$ Oct 12, 2021 at 4:21

The Somali Desert is in the rain shadow region of the Ethiopian Highlands. This has contributed to the aridity of the region. The diversion of moist air to the low-pressure regions in the South West Monsoon of Asia.

This is a paraphrased piece of text from Quora. It is Notable how dry Somali is, which I regularly notice when looking at maps, how the color changes from green to rust red on a map as you move to Somali

The rain shadow effect is the reason of the cause of most deserts that were not victims of the Earth Rotational Adjustments for thousands of years.

El Nino is also Contributing to the droughts in Somali according to Wikipedia also Human Conflicts and wars also contribute to droughts that help the desertification of Somali


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