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Prolonged Dry Episodes over the Conterminous United States: New Tendencies Emerging during the Last 40 Years

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  • 1 UCAR Visiting Scientist, National Climatic Data Center, Asheville, North Carolina
  • | 2 STG, Inc., Asheville, North Carolina
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Abstract

A disproportionate increase in precipitation coming from intense rain events, in the situation of general warming (thus, an extension of the vegetation period with intensive transpiration), and an insignificant change in total precipitation could lead to an increase in the frequency of a potentially serious type of extreme events: prolonged periods without precipitation (even when the mean seasonal rainfall totals increase). This paper investigates whether this development is already occurring during the past several decades over the conterminous United States, for the same period when changes in frequency of intense precipitation events are being observed. Lengthy strings of “dry” days without sizeable (>1.0 mm) precipitation were assessed only during the warm season (defined as a period when mean daily temperature is above the 5°C threshold) when water is intensively used for transpiration and prolonged periods without sizable rainfall represent a hazard for terrestrial ecosystem’s health and agriculture. During the past four decades, the mean duration of prolonged dry episodes (1 month or longer in the eastern United States and 2 months or longer in the southwestern United States) has significantly increased. As a consequence the return period of 1-month-long dry episodes over the eastern United States has reduced more than twofold from 15 to 6–7 yr. The longer average duration of dry episodes has occurred during a relatively wet period across the country but is not observed over the northwestern United States.

Corresponding author address: Pavel Ya. Groisman, National Climatic Data Center, Federal Building, 151 Patton Avenue, Asheville, NC 28801. Email: pasha.groisman@noaa.gov

Abstract

A disproportionate increase in precipitation coming from intense rain events, in the situation of general warming (thus, an extension of the vegetation period with intensive transpiration), and an insignificant change in total precipitation could lead to an increase in the frequency of a potentially serious type of extreme events: prolonged periods without precipitation (even when the mean seasonal rainfall totals increase). This paper investigates whether this development is already occurring during the past several decades over the conterminous United States, for the same period when changes in frequency of intense precipitation events are being observed. Lengthy strings of “dry” days without sizeable (>1.0 mm) precipitation were assessed only during the warm season (defined as a period when mean daily temperature is above the 5°C threshold) when water is intensively used for transpiration and prolonged periods without sizable rainfall represent a hazard for terrestrial ecosystem’s health and agriculture. During the past four decades, the mean duration of prolonged dry episodes (1 month or longer in the eastern United States and 2 months or longer in the southwestern United States) has significantly increased. As a consequence the return period of 1-month-long dry episodes over the eastern United States has reduced more than twofold from 15 to 6–7 yr. The longer average duration of dry episodes has occurred during a relatively wet period across the country but is not observed over the northwestern United States.

Corresponding author address: Pavel Ya. Groisman, National Climatic Data Center, Federal Building, 151 Patton Avenue, Asheville, NC 28801. Email: pasha.groisman@noaa.gov

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