The climate of the Altiplano: Observed current conditions and mechanisms of past changes

René Garreaud, Mathias Vuille, Amy C. Clement

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

466 Scopus citations


The large-scale controls on the climate of the South American Altiplano are investigated using local observations, reanalysis data and general circulation model experiments. The objective is to gain understanding of causes of climate variability and climate change by relating mechanisms that operate on timescales ranging from the intraseasonal to the glacial - interglacial. Our results suggest that, on all timescales, the climatic conditions on the Altiplano are closely related to the upper-air circulation, with an easterly zonal flow aloft favoring wet conditions and westerly flow causing dry conditions. Different factors influence the upper-air circulation on the different timescales. Intraseasonal variability is a reflection of the position and intensity of the Bolivian High, which is modulated by Rossby waves emanating from the midlatitude South Pacific. The annual cycle of dry winter and wet summer conditions is caused by the seasonal expansion of the equatorial easterlies in the upper troposphere, rather than direct insolation forcing over the Altiplano or moisture changes in the source area. Interannual variability is primarily related to changes in the mean zonal flow over the Altiplano, reflecting changes in meridional baroclinicity between tropical and subtropical latitudes, which in turn is a response to sea-surface temperature changes in the tropical Pacific. Orbitally forced changes in the land - sea contrast drive continental-scale circulation changes, which significantly alter the zonal flow over the Altiplano. On glacial - interglacial timescales, the contrast in heating between northern and southern hemispheres during the glacial leads to upper-air easterly anomalies throughout the tropics. On modern timescales the marked submonthly, seasonal and interannual changes of moisture over the Altiplano cannot be accounted for by moisture changes in the humid tropical lowlands. However, the model experiments suggest that cooler conditions during a glacial reduce moisture availability from the tropical lowlands, which counteracts the effect of the upper-level circulation, resulting in little overall change in precipitation. This observational and modeling analysis provides a physical framework for relating the mechanisms of both internal and forced climate change on the Altiplano on a wide range of timescales.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)5-22
Number of pages18
JournalPalaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology
Issue number1-3
StatePublished - May 15 2003


  • Altiplano
  • Modern climate
  • Past changes
  • Rainfall variability

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Oceanography
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Earth-Surface Processes
  • Palaeontology


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