Major wind system that seasonally reverses its direction (e.g., one that blows for six months from the northeast and six months from the southwest). The most prominent examples occur in Africa and southern Asia. The primary cause of monsoons is the difference between annual temperature trends over land and sea. Seasonal changes in temperature are large over land but small over oceans. A monsoon blows from cold toward warm regions: from sea toward land in summer and from land toward sea in winter. Most summer monsoons produce copious amounts of rain; winter monsoons tend to cause drought.
Learn more about monsoon with a free trial on Britannica.com.
A monsoon is a seasonal prevailing wind which lasts for several months. The term was first used in English in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and neighboring countries to refer to the big seasonal winds blowing from the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea in the southwest bringing heavy rainfall to the region. In hydrology, monsoon rainfall is considered to be that which occurs in any region that receives the majority of its rain during a particular season. This allows other regions of the world such as North America, South America, Sub-Saharan Africa, Australia and East Asia to qualify as monsoon regions. In terms of total precipitation and total area covered, the monsoons affecting the Indian subcontinent dwarf the North American monsoon. The South Asian monsoon affects a larger number of people due to the high density of population in this part of the world.
Strengthening of the Asian monsoon has been linked to the uplift of the Tibetan Plateau after the collision of India and Asia around 50 million years ago. Many geologists believe the monsoon first became strong around 8 million years ago based on records from the Arabian Sea and the record of wind-blown dust in the Loess Plateau of China. More recently, plant fossils in China and new long-duration sediment records from the South China Sea led to a timing of the monsoon starting 15-20 million years ago and linked to early Tibetan uplift. Testing of this hypothesis awaits deep ocean sampling by the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program. The monsoon has varied significantly in strength since this time, largely linked to global climate change, especially the cycle of the Pleistocene ice ages. Timing of the monsoon strengthening of the Indian Monsoon of around 5 million years ago was suggested due to an interval of closing of the Indonesian Seaway to cold thermocline waters passage from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean which is believed to have resulted in an increased sea surface temperature in the Indian Ocean, which increased gyral circulation and then caused an increased intensity of the monsoon.Sinha et al (2006) identified five episodes during the Quaternary at 2.22 (PL-1), 1.83 (PL-2), 0.68 (PL-3), 0.45 (PL-4) and 0.04 Ma (PL-5), of weakening of Leeuwin Current (Western Australia) and postulated that the weakening of the LC would have an effect on the sea surface temperature (SST) in the Indian Ocean, as the Indonesian throughflow generally warms the Indian Ocean.Thus these five intervals could probably be those of considerable lowering of SST in the Indian Ocean and would definitely have influenced Indian monsoon intensity. They (Sinha et al, 2006) stated that that during the weak LC there is the possibility of reduced intensity of Indian winter monsoon and strong summer monsoon, because of change in the Indian Ocean dipole due to reduction in net heat input to the Indian Ocean through the Indonesian throughflow. Thus a better understanding of the possible links between El Nino, Western Pacific Warm Pool (WPWP), Indonesian throughflow, wind pattern off Western Australia, and ice volume expansion and contraction can be obtained by studying the behaviour of the LC during Quaternary at close stratigraphic intervals. Pie
Monsoons are caused by the larger amplitude of the seasonal cycle of land temperature compared to that of nearby oceans. This differential warming happens because heat in the ocean is mixed vertically through a "mixed layer" that may be fifty meters deep, through the action of wind and buoyancy-generated turbulence, whereas the land surface conducts heat slowly, with the seasonal signal penetrating perhaps a meter or so. Additionally, the specific heat capacity of liquid water is significantly higher than that of most materials that make up land. Together, these factors mean that the heat capacity of the layer participating in the seasonal cycle is much larger over the oceans than over land, with the consequence that the air over the land warms faster and reaches a higher temperature than the air over the ocean. The hot air over the land tends to rise, creating an area of low pressure. This creates a steady wind blowing toward the land, bringing the moist near-surface air over the oceans with it. Similar rainfall is caused by the moist ocean air being lifted upwards by mountains, surface heating, convergence at the surface, divergence aloft, or from storm-produced outflows at the surface. However the lifting occurs, the air cools due expansion in lower pressure, which in turn produces condensation.
In winter, the land cools off quickly, but the ocean keeps the heat longer. The hot air over the ocean rises, creating a low pressure area and a breeze from land to ocean while a large area of drying high pressure is formed over the land, increased by wintertime cooling. Monsoons are similar to sea and land breezes, a term usually referring to the localized, diurnal (daily) cycle of circulation near coastlines everywhere, but they are much larger in scale, stronger and seasonal.
As monsoons have become better understood, the term monsoon has been broadened to include almost all of the phenomena associated with the annual weather cycle within the tropical and subtropical land regions of the earth.
Even more broadly, it is now understood that in the geological past, monsoon systems must have always accompanied the formation of supercontinents such as Pangaea, with their extreme continental climates.
The southwestern summer monsoons occur from June through September. The Great Indian Desert (Thar Desert) and adjoining areas of the northern and central Indian subcontinent heats up considerably during the hot summers. This causes a low pressure area over the northern and central Indian subcontinent. To fill this void, the moisture-laden winds from the Indian Ocean rush in to the subcontinent. These winds, rich in moisture, are drawn towards the Himalayas, creating winds blowing storm clouds towards the subcontinent. However the Himalayas act like a high wall and do not allow the winds to pass into Central Asia, forcing them to rise. With the gain in altitude of the clouds, the temperature drops and precipitation occurs. Some areas of the subcontinent receive up to 10,000 mm of rain.
The southwest monsoon is generally expected to begin around the start of June and dies down by the end of September. The moisture-laden winds on reaching the southernmost point of the Indian peninsula, due to its topology, become divided into two parts:
The Arabian Sea Branch of the SW Monsoon first hits the Western Ghats of the coastal state of Kerala, India and hence Kerala is the first state in India to receive rain from the South-West Monsoon. This branch of the monsoon moves northwards along the Western Ghats giving rain to the coastal areas west of the Western Ghats. It is to be noted that the eastern parts of the Western Ghats do not receive much rain from this monsoon as the wind does not cross the Western Ghats.
The Bay of Bengal Branch of SW Monsoon flows over the Bay of Bengal heading towards North-Eastern India and Bengal, picking up more moisture from the Bay of Bengal. Its hits the Eastern Himalaya and provides a huge amount of rain to the regions of North-East India, Bangladesh and West Bengal. Mawsynram, situated on the southern slopes of the Eastern Himalaya in Shillong, India is one of the wettest places on Earth. After striking the Eastern Himalaya it turns towards the West, travels over the Indo-Gangetic Plain, at a rate of roughly 1-2 weeks per state, pouring rain all along its way.
The monsoon accounts for 80 percent of the rainfall in the country. Indian agriculture (which accounts for 25 percent of the GDP and employs 70 percent of the population) is heavily dependent on the rains, especially crops like cotton, rice, oilseeds and coarse grains. A delay of a few days in the arrival of the monsoon can, and does, badly affect the economy, as evidenced in the numerous droughts in India in the 90s.
The monsoon is widely welcomed and appreciated by city-dwellers as well, for it provides relief from the climax of summer in June. However, because of the lack of adequate infrastructure in place, most major cities are often adversely affected as well. The roads, already shoddy, take a battering each year; houses and streets at the bottom of slopes and beside rivers are waterlogged, slums are flooded, and the sewers and the rare hurricane drain start to back up and pour out toxic filth rather than drain it away. This translates into various minor casualties most of the time; lack of city infrastructure coupled with changing climate patterns also causes severe damage to and loss of property and life. Bangladesh and some regions of India like in Assam and places of West Bengal experiences heavy flood, which claims huge number of lives and huge loss of property and causes severe damage to economy, as evidenced in the Mumbai floods of 2005. Also in the recent past, areas in India that used to receive scanty rainfall throughout the year, like the Thar Desert, have surprisingly ended up receiving floods due to the prolonged monsoon season.
June 1 is regarded as the date of onset of the monsoon in India, which is the average date on which the monsoon strikes Kerala over the years for which scientific data is available with the Indian Meteoreological Department.
Around September, with the sun fast retreating south, the northern land mass of the Indian subcontinent begins to cool off rapidly. With this air pressure begins to build over northern India. The Indian Ocean and its surrounding atmosphere still holds its heat. This causes the cold wind to sweep down from the Himalayas and Indo-Gangetic Plain towards the vast spans of the Indian Ocean south of the Deccan peninsular. This is known as the North-East Monsoon or Retreating Monsoon.
While traveling towards the Indian Ocean, the dry cold wind picks up some moisture from the Bay of Bengal and pours it over peninsular India. Cities like Chennai, which get less rain from the South-West Monsoon, receives rain from the Retreating Monsoon. About 50% - 60% of the rain received by the state of Tamil Nadu is from the North-East Monsoon.
It is worth noting that North-East Monsoon (or the Retreating Monsoon) is not able to bring as much rain as the South-West Monsoon.
The North American Monsoon (NAM) occurs from late June or early July into September, originating over Mexico and spreading into the southwest United States by mid-July. It affects Mexico along the Sierra Madre Occidental as well as Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, West Texas, and California. It pushes as far west as the Peninsular Ranges and Transverse Ranges of southern California but rarely reaches the coastal strip (a wall of desert thunderstorms only a half-hour's drive away is a common summer sight from the sunny skies along the coast during the monsoon). The North American monsoon is known to many as the Summer, Southwest, Mexican or Arizona monsoon. It is also sometimes called the Desert Monsoon as a large part of the affected area is desert.
The monsoon of western sub-Saharan Africa is the result of the seasonal shifts of the Intertropical Convergence Zone and the great seasonal temperature differences between the Sahara and the equatorial Atlantic Ocean. It migrates northward from the equatorial Atlantic in February, reaches western Africa on June 22, then moves back to the south by October. The dry, northeasterly trade winds, and their more extreme form, the harmattan, are interrupted by the northern shift in the ITCZ and resultant southerly, rain-bearing winds during the summer. The semiarid Sahel and Sudan depend upon this pattern for most of their precipitation.