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Occurrence of Sustained Droughts in the Interior Pacific Northwest (A.D. 1733–1980) Inferred from Tree-Ring Data

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  • 1 Department of Anthropology and Geography, Georgia State University, Atlanta, Georgia
  • | 2 Department of Geography and Planning, Appalachian State University, Boone, North Carolina
  • | 3 Department of Geography, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Tennessee
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Abstract

The occurrence of moderate and severe sustained droughts in the interior Pacific Northwest (PNW) from 1733 to 1980 was mapped using 18 western juniper (Juniperus occidentalis var. occidentalis Hook.) tree-ring chronologies. The frequency and duration of both moderate and severe sustained droughts are substantially greater in the northwest region of the interior PNW. Thus, this area is identified as a drought core region. These droughts are chiefly attributed to the presence of a Pacific blocking high off the NW coast that is associated with significant reductions in cool season precipitation. Specifically, the impacted northwest region lies within a transition zone between the fluxes of marine airflow during the cool season months and interior air during the warm season months. The waxing and waning of the boundaries of this transition zone particularly affect western juniper trees growing in this region. During years in which a blocking high is present, marine airflow is substantially reduced, exposing the trees in the transition zone to substantially drier springtime conditions that limit soil moisture and reduce radial growth. Although the most severe and persistent droughts were concentrated in the northwest region, four large-scale droughts also impacted the entire interior PNW during the study period. These droughts occurred principally during PDO warm phases, suggesting a regional-scale linkage to this climatic oscillation.

Corresponding author address: Dr. Paul A. Knapp, Department of Anthropology and Geography, Georgia State University, 33 Gilmer Street, University Plaza, Atlanta, GA 30303. Email: gegpak@langate.gsu.edu

Abstract

The occurrence of moderate and severe sustained droughts in the interior Pacific Northwest (PNW) from 1733 to 1980 was mapped using 18 western juniper (Juniperus occidentalis var. occidentalis Hook.) tree-ring chronologies. The frequency and duration of both moderate and severe sustained droughts are substantially greater in the northwest region of the interior PNW. Thus, this area is identified as a drought core region. These droughts are chiefly attributed to the presence of a Pacific blocking high off the NW coast that is associated with significant reductions in cool season precipitation. Specifically, the impacted northwest region lies within a transition zone between the fluxes of marine airflow during the cool season months and interior air during the warm season months. The waxing and waning of the boundaries of this transition zone particularly affect western juniper trees growing in this region. During years in which a blocking high is present, marine airflow is substantially reduced, exposing the trees in the transition zone to substantially drier springtime conditions that limit soil moisture and reduce radial growth. Although the most severe and persistent droughts were concentrated in the northwest region, four large-scale droughts also impacted the entire interior PNW during the study period. These droughts occurred principally during PDO warm phases, suggesting a regional-scale linkage to this climatic oscillation.

Corresponding author address: Dr. Paul A. Knapp, Department of Anthropology and Geography, Georgia State University, 33 Gilmer Street, University Plaza, Atlanta, GA 30303. Email: gegpak@langate.gsu.edu

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