Dynamical Causes of the 2010/11 Texas–Northern Mexico Drought

Richard Seager Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, Palisades, New York

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Lisa Goddard International Research Institute for Climate and Society, Palisades, New York

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Jennifer Nakamura Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, Palisades, New York

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Naomi Henderson Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, Palisades, New York

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Dong Eun Lee Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, Palisades, New York

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Abstract

The causes of the Texas–northern Mexico drought during 2010–11 are shown, using observations, reanalyses, and model simulations, to arise from a combination of ocean forcing and internal atmospheric variability. The drought began in fall 2010 and winter 2010/11 as a La Niña event developed in the tropical Pacific Ocean. Climate models forced by observed sea surface temperatures (SSTs) produced dry conditions in fall 2010 through spring 2011 associated with transient eddy moisture flux divergence related to a northward shift of the Pacific–North American storm track, typical of La Niña events. In contrast the observed drought was not associated with such a clear shift of the transient eddy fields and instead was significantly influenced by internal atmospheric variability including the negative North Atlantic Oscillation of winter 2010/11, which created mean flow moisture divergence and drying over the southern Plains and southeast United States. The models suggest that drought continuation into summer 2011 was not strongly SST forced. Mean flow circulation and moisture divergence anomalies were responsible for the summer 2011 drought, arising from either internal atmospheric variability or a response to dry summer soils not captured by the models. The summer of 2011 was one of the two driest and hottest summers over recent decades but it does not represent a clear outlier to the strong inverse relation between summer precipitation and temperature in the region. Seasonal forecasts at 3.5-month lead time did predict onset of the drought in fall and winter 2010/11 but not intensification into summer 2011, demonstrating the current, and likely inherent, inability to predict important aspects of North American droughts.

Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory Contribution Number 7742.

Corresponding author address: Richard Seager, Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, 61 Route 9W, Palisades, NY 10964. E-mail: seager@ldeo.columbia.edu

This article is included in the Advancing Drought Monitoring and Prediction Special Collection.

Abstract

The causes of the Texas–northern Mexico drought during 2010–11 are shown, using observations, reanalyses, and model simulations, to arise from a combination of ocean forcing and internal atmospheric variability. The drought began in fall 2010 and winter 2010/11 as a La Niña event developed in the tropical Pacific Ocean. Climate models forced by observed sea surface temperatures (SSTs) produced dry conditions in fall 2010 through spring 2011 associated with transient eddy moisture flux divergence related to a northward shift of the Pacific–North American storm track, typical of La Niña events. In contrast the observed drought was not associated with such a clear shift of the transient eddy fields and instead was significantly influenced by internal atmospheric variability including the negative North Atlantic Oscillation of winter 2010/11, which created mean flow moisture divergence and drying over the southern Plains and southeast United States. The models suggest that drought continuation into summer 2011 was not strongly SST forced. Mean flow circulation and moisture divergence anomalies were responsible for the summer 2011 drought, arising from either internal atmospheric variability or a response to dry summer soils not captured by the models. The summer of 2011 was one of the two driest and hottest summers over recent decades but it does not represent a clear outlier to the strong inverse relation between summer precipitation and temperature in the region. Seasonal forecasts at 3.5-month lead time did predict onset of the drought in fall and winter 2010/11 but not intensification into summer 2011, demonstrating the current, and likely inherent, inability to predict important aspects of North American droughts.

Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory Contribution Number 7742.

Corresponding author address: Richard Seager, Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, 61 Route 9W, Palisades, NY 10964. E-mail: seager@ldeo.columbia.edu

This article is included in the Advancing Drought Monitoring and Prediction Special Collection.

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