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Anatomy of an Extreme Event

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  • 1 * NOAA/Earth System Research Laboratory, Boulder, Colorado
  • | 2 NOAA/Climate Prediction Center, Camp Springs, Maryland
  • | 3 Department of Atmospheric Sciences, Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas
  • | 4 NOAA/Earth System Research Laboratory, and University of Colorado, Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, Boulder, Colorado
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Abstract

The record-setting 2011 Texas drought/heat wave is examined to identify physical processes, underlying causes, and predictability. October 2010–September 2011 was Texas’s driest 12-month period on record. While the summer 2011 heat wave magnitude (2.9°C above the 1981–2010 mean) was larger than the previous record, events of similar or larger magnitude appear in preindustrial control runs of climate models. The principal factor contributing to the heat wave magnitude was a severe rainfall deficit during antecedent and concurrent seasons related to anomalous sea surface temperatures (SSTs) that included a La Niña event. Virtually all the precipitation deficits appear to be due to natural variability. About 0.6°C warming relative to the 1981–2010 mean is estimated to be attributable to human-induced climate change, with warming observed mainly in the past decade. Quantitative attribution of the overall human-induced contribution since preindustrial times is complicated by the lack of a detected century-scale temperature trend over Texas. Multiple factors altered the probability of climate extremes over Texas in 2011. Observed SST conditions increased the frequency of severe rainfall deficit events from 9% to 34% relative to 1981–2010, while anthropogenic forcing did not appreciably alter their frequency. Human-induced climate change increased the probability of a new temperature record from 3% during the 1981–2010 reference period to 6% in 2011, while the 2011 SSTs increased the probability from 4% to 23%. Forecasts initialized in May 2011 demonstrate predictive skill in anticipating much of the SST-enhanced risk for an extreme summer drought/heat wave over Texas.

Corresponding author address: M. Hoerling, NOAA/Earth System Research Laboratory, 325 Broadway, Boulder CO 80305. E-mail: martin.hoerling@noaa.gov

Abstract

The record-setting 2011 Texas drought/heat wave is examined to identify physical processes, underlying causes, and predictability. October 2010–September 2011 was Texas’s driest 12-month period on record. While the summer 2011 heat wave magnitude (2.9°C above the 1981–2010 mean) was larger than the previous record, events of similar or larger magnitude appear in preindustrial control runs of climate models. The principal factor contributing to the heat wave magnitude was a severe rainfall deficit during antecedent and concurrent seasons related to anomalous sea surface temperatures (SSTs) that included a La Niña event. Virtually all the precipitation deficits appear to be due to natural variability. About 0.6°C warming relative to the 1981–2010 mean is estimated to be attributable to human-induced climate change, with warming observed mainly in the past decade. Quantitative attribution of the overall human-induced contribution since preindustrial times is complicated by the lack of a detected century-scale temperature trend over Texas. Multiple factors altered the probability of climate extremes over Texas in 2011. Observed SST conditions increased the frequency of severe rainfall deficit events from 9% to 34% relative to 1981–2010, while anthropogenic forcing did not appreciably alter their frequency. Human-induced climate change increased the probability of a new temperature record from 3% during the 1981–2010 reference period to 6% in 2011, while the 2011 SSTs increased the probability from 4% to 23%. Forecasts initialized in May 2011 demonstrate predictive skill in anticipating much of the SST-enhanced risk for an extreme summer drought/heat wave over Texas.

Corresponding author address: M. Hoerling, NOAA/Earth System Research Laboratory, 325 Broadway, Boulder CO 80305. E-mail: martin.hoerling@noaa.gov
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