Floods over the U.S. Midwest: A Regional Water Cycle Perspective

Paul A. Dirmeyer Center for Ocean–Land–Atmosphere Studies, Institute of Global Environment and Society, Calverton, Maryland

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James L. Kinter III Center for Ocean–Land–Atmosphere Studies, Institute of Global Environment and Society, Calverton, Maryland, and Department of Atmospheric, Ocean and Earth Sciences, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia

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Abstract

The characteristics of situations of extremely high rainfall over the midwestern region of the United States during late spring and summer are investigated from the perspective of the regional water cycle using observations and observationally based analyses. The period of May–July has the greatest mean rainfall rates of the year and higher interannual variability than the periods either before or after. This is also a critical time of year for water resources and cultivation schedules in this agriculturally important region. Large-scale floods during this time of year are usually characterized by an enhanced source of moisture evaporating from low latitudes, specifically the Caribbean Sea. This is part of a fetch of moisture that extends from the Caribbean northward along the coast of Central America, over the Yucatan Peninsula, along the east coast of Mexico and the western Gulf of Mexico, and over Texas, where it links into the Great Plains low-level jet. In fact, heavy rainfall over much of the eastern half of the United States is associated with above-average Caribbean moisture supply. There is also indication of an enhanced source of moisture from the subtropical Pacific during Midwest flood events. Drought events appear to have a different spatial pattern of water cycle variables and circulation anomalies, and are not simply equal and opposite manifestations of flood events. While not a dominant source of moisture even during extreme events, the Caribbean region seems to be part of an important link for remote moisture, supplying floods over the Midwest.

Corresponding author address: Paul A. Dirmeyer, Center for Ocean–Land–Atmosphere Studies, 4041 Powder Mill Rd., Calverton, MD 20705-3106. Email: dirmeyer@cola.iges.org

Abstract

The characteristics of situations of extremely high rainfall over the midwestern region of the United States during late spring and summer are investigated from the perspective of the regional water cycle using observations and observationally based analyses. The period of May–July has the greatest mean rainfall rates of the year and higher interannual variability than the periods either before or after. This is also a critical time of year for water resources and cultivation schedules in this agriculturally important region. Large-scale floods during this time of year are usually characterized by an enhanced source of moisture evaporating from low latitudes, specifically the Caribbean Sea. This is part of a fetch of moisture that extends from the Caribbean northward along the coast of Central America, over the Yucatan Peninsula, along the east coast of Mexico and the western Gulf of Mexico, and over Texas, where it links into the Great Plains low-level jet. In fact, heavy rainfall over much of the eastern half of the United States is associated with above-average Caribbean moisture supply. There is also indication of an enhanced source of moisture from the subtropical Pacific during Midwest flood events. Drought events appear to have a different spatial pattern of water cycle variables and circulation anomalies, and are not simply equal and opposite manifestations of flood events. While not a dominant source of moisture even during extreme events, the Caribbean region seems to be part of an important link for remote moisture, supplying floods over the Midwest.

Corresponding author address: Paul A. Dirmeyer, Center for Ocean–Land–Atmosphere Studies, 4041 Powder Mill Rd., Calverton, MD 20705-3106. Email: dirmeyer@cola.iges.org

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