In June and July 2016 the Dynamics-Aerosol-Chemistry-Cloud Interactions in West Africa (DACCIWA) project organised a major international field campaign in southern West Africa (SWA) including measurements from three inland 20 ground supersites, urban sites in Cotonou and Abidjan, radiosondes and three research aircraft. A significant range of different weather situations was encountered during this period, including the monsoon onset. The purpose of this paper is to characterise the large-scale setting for the campaign as well as synoptic and mesoscale weather systems affecting the study region in the light of existing conceptual ideas, mainly using objective and subjective identification algorithms based on (re-) analysis and satellite products. In addition, it is shown how the described synoptic variations influence the atmospheric composition over SWA through advection of mineral-dust, biomass-burning and urban-pollution plumes. The boreal summer of 2016 was characterised by Pacific La Niña, Atlantic El Niño and warm eastern Mediterranean conditions, whose competing influences on precipitation led to an overall average rainy season. During the relatively dusty pre-onset Phase 1 (1–21 June 2016), three westward propagating coherent cyclonic vortices between 4 and 13°N modulated winds and rainfall in the Guinea coastal area. The monsoon onset occurred in connection with a marked extratropical trough and cold surge over northern Africa, leading to a breakdown of the Saharan heat low and African easterly jet and a suppression of rainfall. During this period, quasi-stationary low-level vortices associated with the trough transformed into more tropical, propagating disturbances resembling an African easterly wave (AEW). To the east of this system, moist southerlies penetrated deep into the continent. The post-onset Phase 2 (22 June–20 July 2016) was characterised by a significant increase of low-level cloudiness, unusually dry conditions and strong northeastward dispersion of urban pollution
plumes in SWA as well as rainfall modulation by westward propagating AEWs in the Sahel. Around 12–14 July 2016 an interesting and so-far undocumented cyclonic-anticyclonic vortex couplet crossed SWA. The anticyclonic centre had its origin in the southern hemisphere and transported unusually dry air filled with aged aerosol into the region. During Phase 3 (21–26 July 2016), a similar vortex couplet slightly farther north created enhanced westerly moisture transports into SWA and extraordinarily wet conditions, accompanied by a deep penetration of the biomass-burning plume from central Africa. Finally, a return to more undisturbed monsoon conditions took place during Phase 4 (27–31 July 2016). The in-depth synoptic analysis reveals that several significant weather systems during the DACCIWA campaign cannot be attributed unequivocally to any of the tropical waves and disturbances described in the literature, and thus deserve further study.