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North American Droughts of the Last Millennium from a Gridded Network of Tree-Ring Data

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  • 1 Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University, Palisades, New York
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Abstract

Drought is the most economically expensive recurring natural disaster to strike North America in modern times. Recently available gridded drought reconstructions have been developed for most of North America from a network of drought-sensitive tree-ring chronologies, many of which span the last 1000 yr. These reconstructions enable the authors to put the famous droughts of the instrumental record (i.e., the 1930s Dust Bowl and the 1950s Southwest droughts) into the context of 1000 yr of natural drought variability on the continent. We can now, with this remarkable new record, examine the severity, persistence, spatial signatures, and frequencies of drought variability over the past milllennium, and how these have changed with time.

The gridded drought reconstructions reveal the existence of successive “megadroughts,” unprecedented in persistence (20–40 yr), yet similar in year-to-year severity and spatial distribution to the major droughts experienced in today’s North America. These megadroughts occurred during a 400-yr-long period in the early to middle second millennium a.d., with a climate varying as today’s, but around a drier mean. The implication is that the mechanism forcing persistent drought in the West and the Plains in the instrumental era is analagous to that underlying the megadroughts of the medieval period. The leading spatial mode of drought variability in the recontructions resembles the North American ENSO pattern: widespread drought across the United States, centered on the Southwest, with a hint of the opposite phase in the Pacific Northwest.

Recently, climate models forced by the observed history of tropical Pacific SSTs have been able to successfully simulate all of the major North American droughts of the last 150 yr. In each case, cool “La Niña–like” conditions in the tropical Pacific are consistent with North American drought. With ENSO showing a pronounced signal in the gridded drought recontructions of the last millennium, both in terms of its link to the leading spatial mode, and the leading time scales of drought variability (revealed by multitaper spectral analysis and wavelet analysis), it is postulated that, as for the modern day, the medieval megadroughts were forced by protracted La Niña–like tropical Pacific SSTs. Further evidence for this comes from the global hydroclimatic “footprint” of the medieval era revealed by existing paleoclimatic archives from the tropical Pacific and ENSO-sensitive tropical and extratropical land regions. In general, this global pattern matches that observed for modern-day persistent North American drought, whereby a La Niña–like tropical Pacific is accompanied by hemispheric, and in the midlatitudes, zonal, symmetry of hydroclimatic anomalies.

Corresponding author address: Dr. Celine Herweijer, 4 Prince Albert Road, London NW1 7SN, United Kingdom. Email: celine.herweijer@rms.com

Abstract

Drought is the most economically expensive recurring natural disaster to strike North America in modern times. Recently available gridded drought reconstructions have been developed for most of North America from a network of drought-sensitive tree-ring chronologies, many of which span the last 1000 yr. These reconstructions enable the authors to put the famous droughts of the instrumental record (i.e., the 1930s Dust Bowl and the 1950s Southwest droughts) into the context of 1000 yr of natural drought variability on the continent. We can now, with this remarkable new record, examine the severity, persistence, spatial signatures, and frequencies of drought variability over the past milllennium, and how these have changed with time.

The gridded drought reconstructions reveal the existence of successive “megadroughts,” unprecedented in persistence (20–40 yr), yet similar in year-to-year severity and spatial distribution to the major droughts experienced in today’s North America. These megadroughts occurred during a 400-yr-long period in the early to middle second millennium a.d., with a climate varying as today’s, but around a drier mean. The implication is that the mechanism forcing persistent drought in the West and the Plains in the instrumental era is analagous to that underlying the megadroughts of the medieval period. The leading spatial mode of drought variability in the recontructions resembles the North American ENSO pattern: widespread drought across the United States, centered on the Southwest, with a hint of the opposite phase in the Pacific Northwest.

Recently, climate models forced by the observed history of tropical Pacific SSTs have been able to successfully simulate all of the major North American droughts of the last 150 yr. In each case, cool “La Niña–like” conditions in the tropical Pacific are consistent with North American drought. With ENSO showing a pronounced signal in the gridded drought recontructions of the last millennium, both in terms of its link to the leading spatial mode, and the leading time scales of drought variability (revealed by multitaper spectral analysis and wavelet analysis), it is postulated that, as for the modern day, the medieval megadroughts were forced by protracted La Niña–like tropical Pacific SSTs. Further evidence for this comes from the global hydroclimatic “footprint” of the medieval era revealed by existing paleoclimatic archives from the tropical Pacific and ENSO-sensitive tropical and extratropical land regions. In general, this global pattern matches that observed for modern-day persistent North American drought, whereby a La Niña–like tropical Pacific is accompanied by hemispheric, and in the midlatitudes, zonal, symmetry of hydroclimatic anomalies.

Corresponding author address: Dr. Celine Herweijer, 4 Prince Albert Road, London NW1 7SN, United Kingdom. Email: celine.herweijer@rms.com

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