Southeast Asia experiences heavy autumn and winter rainfalls, known as winter monsoons, which can lead to devastating floods and landslides. While the scientific community has extensively studied and understood summer monsoons, there is a lack of knowledge regarding winter monsoons. The absence of data from weather stations during certain periods has made it challenging to make accurate long-term predictions about the timing and intensity of winter rainfall in countries such as Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, and Malaysia.

Winter monsoons bring substantial rainfall to coastal areas of Vietnam, the Philippines, Southeast India, Sri Lanka, and Japan. This rainfall plays a critical role in agriculture, water resources, and natural hazard risks like flooding and landslides. Southeast Asia is home to some of the world’s largest food producers and exporters, making the regional economy and the global food trade vulnerable to changes in winter monsoon rainfall.

Breaking New Ground with Stalagmites

In a groundbreaking study, scientists have examined an 8,000-year-old stalagmite from a cave in central Vietnam to gather information about changes in seasonal rainfall patterns in Southeast Asia over millennia. This research has enabled the distinction between rainfall caused by local weather conditions and rainfall resulting from broader regional conditions.

Led by Annabel Wolf, a Ph.D. student at Northumbria University supported by Dr. Vasile Ersek, a paleoclimatologist and geochemist from the same institution, the study has been published in the journal Nature Communications. The research reveals that the regional component of the monsoon, influenced by atmospheric circulation, presents a contradictory relationship between winter and summer monsoons, driven by insolation in the northern hemisphere. However, the analysis of local rainfall samples demonstrates a strong connection between summer and winter monsoons.

Implications for Future Research

The findings of this study open the door to further exploration of samples from other regions in Southeast Asia. By deciphering the local and regional rainfall levels, scientists can gain a deeper understanding of how weather patterns have evolved over time and how they may continue to change in the future. Currently, there is a lack of robust records documenting long-term changes in Southeast Asian rainfall associated with the Northeast Winter Monsoon under pre-industrial conditions. This knowledge gap contributes to uncertainties in climate models, which often underestimate winter monsoon rainfall by up to 50% and result in less reliable future climate projections.

Dr. Ersek emphasizes the significance of shedding light on potential discrepancies in paleoclimate reconstructions. By rectifying inconsistencies, scientists can enhance their understanding of historical climate patterns and refine their climate models.

The newfound technique of analyzing stalagmites presents a promising avenue for gaining insights into the enigmatic winter monsoons of Southeast Asia. It offers the potential to refine long-term climate predictions, safeguard the region’s agricultural and water resources, and mitigate the risks associated with floods and landslides. With further research and a deeper understanding of winter monsoons, Southeast Asian countries can better prepare for and adapt to the changing climate, ensuring the resilience of their economies and food security in an increasingly uncertain world.


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