ENSO and Hydrologic Extremes in the Western United States

Daniel R. Cayan Climate Research Division, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and U.S. Geological Survey, La Jolla, California

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Kelly T. Redmond Western Regional Climate Center, Reno, Nevada

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Laurence G. Riddle Climate Research Division, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, La Jolla, California

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Abstract

Frequency distributions of daily precipitation in winter and daily stream flow from late winter to early summer, at several hundred sites in the western United States, exhibit strong and systematic responses to the two phases of ENSO. Most of the stream flows considered are driven by snowmelt. The Southern Oscillation index (SOI) is used as the ENSO phase indicator. Both modest (median) and larger (90th percentile) events were considered. In years with negative SOI values (El Niño), days with high daily precipitation and stream flow are more frequent than average over the Southwest and less frequent over the Northwest. During years with positive SOI values (La Niña), a nearly opposite pattern is seen. A more pronounced increase is seen in the number of days exceeding climatological 90th percentile values than in the number exceeding climatological 50th percentile values, for both precipitation and stream flow. Stream flow responses to ENSO extremes are accentuated over precipitation responses. Evidence suggests that the mechanism for this amplification involves ENSO-phase differences in the persistence and duration of wet episodes, affecting the efficiency of the process by which precipitation is converted to runoff. The SOI leads the precipitation events by several months, and hydrologic lags (mostly through snowmelt) delay the stream flow response by several more months. The combined 6–12-month predictive aspect of this relationship should be of significant benefit in responding to flood (or drought) risk and in improving overall water management in the western states.

* WHOI Contribution Number 9971.

Corresponding author address: Dr. Daniel R. Cayan, Climate Research Division, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, 9500 Gilman Drive, Dept. 0224, La Jolla, CA 92093-0224.

Email: dcayan@ucsd.edu

Abstract

Frequency distributions of daily precipitation in winter and daily stream flow from late winter to early summer, at several hundred sites in the western United States, exhibit strong and systematic responses to the two phases of ENSO. Most of the stream flows considered are driven by snowmelt. The Southern Oscillation index (SOI) is used as the ENSO phase indicator. Both modest (median) and larger (90th percentile) events were considered. In years with negative SOI values (El Niño), days with high daily precipitation and stream flow are more frequent than average over the Southwest and less frequent over the Northwest. During years with positive SOI values (La Niña), a nearly opposite pattern is seen. A more pronounced increase is seen in the number of days exceeding climatological 90th percentile values than in the number exceeding climatological 50th percentile values, for both precipitation and stream flow. Stream flow responses to ENSO extremes are accentuated over precipitation responses. Evidence suggests that the mechanism for this amplification involves ENSO-phase differences in the persistence and duration of wet episodes, affecting the efficiency of the process by which precipitation is converted to runoff. The SOI leads the precipitation events by several months, and hydrologic lags (mostly through snowmelt) delay the stream flow response by several more months. The combined 6–12-month predictive aspect of this relationship should be of significant benefit in responding to flood (or drought) risk and in improving overall water management in the western states.

* WHOI Contribution Number 9971.

Corresponding author address: Dr. Daniel R. Cayan, Climate Research Division, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, 9500 Gilman Drive, Dept. 0224, La Jolla, CA 92093-0224.

Email: dcayan@ucsd.edu

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