Mechanisms of Seasonal Soil Moisture Drought Onset and Termination in the Southern Great Plains

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

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

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Mingfang Ting Lamont–Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, Palisades, New York

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Abstract

Mechanisms of drought onset and termination are examined across North America with a focus on the southern Plains using data from land surface models and regional and global reanalyses for 1979–2017. Continental-scale analysis of covarying patterns reveals a tight coupling between soil moisture change over time and intervening precipitation anomalies. The southern Great Plains are a geographic center of patterns of hydrologic change. Drying is induced by atmospheric wave trains that span the Pacific and North America and place northerly flow anomalies above the southern Plains. In the southern Plains winter is least likely, and fall most likely, for drought onset and spring is least likely, and fall or summer most likely, for drought termination. Southern Plains soil moisture itself, which integrates precipitation over time, has a clear relationship to tropical Pacific sea surface temperature (SST) anomalies with cold conditions favoring dry soils. Soil moisture change, however, though clearly driven by precipitation, has a weaker relation to SSTs and a strong relation to internal atmospheric variability. Little evidence is found of connection of drought onset and termination to driving by temperature anomalies. An analysis of particular drought onsets and terminations on the seasonal time scale reveals commonalities in terms of circulation and moisture transport anomalies over the southern Plains but a variety of ways in which these are connected into the large-scale atmosphere and ocean state. Some onsets are likely to be quite predictable due to forcing by cold tropical Pacific SSTs (e.g., fall 2010). Other onsets and all terminations are likely not predictable in terms of ocean conditions.

© 2019 American Meteorological Society. For information regarding reuse of this content and general copyright information, consult the AMS Copyright Policy (www.ametsoc.org/PUBSReuseLicenses).

Corresponding author: Richard Seager, seager@ldeo.columbia.edu

Abstract

Mechanisms of drought onset and termination are examined across North America with a focus on the southern Plains using data from land surface models and regional and global reanalyses for 1979–2017. Continental-scale analysis of covarying patterns reveals a tight coupling between soil moisture change over time and intervening precipitation anomalies. The southern Great Plains are a geographic center of patterns of hydrologic change. Drying is induced by atmospheric wave trains that span the Pacific and North America and place northerly flow anomalies above the southern Plains. In the southern Plains winter is least likely, and fall most likely, for drought onset and spring is least likely, and fall or summer most likely, for drought termination. Southern Plains soil moisture itself, which integrates precipitation over time, has a clear relationship to tropical Pacific sea surface temperature (SST) anomalies with cold conditions favoring dry soils. Soil moisture change, however, though clearly driven by precipitation, has a weaker relation to SSTs and a strong relation to internal atmospheric variability. Little evidence is found of connection of drought onset and termination to driving by temperature anomalies. An analysis of particular drought onsets and terminations on the seasonal time scale reveals commonalities in terms of circulation and moisture transport anomalies over the southern Plains but a variety of ways in which these are connected into the large-scale atmosphere and ocean state. Some onsets are likely to be quite predictable due to forcing by cold tropical Pacific SSTs (e.g., fall 2010). Other onsets and all terminations are likely not predictable in terms of ocean conditions.

© 2019 American Meteorological Society. For information regarding reuse of this content and general copyright information, consult the AMS Copyright Policy (www.ametsoc.org/PUBSReuseLicenses).

Corresponding author: Richard Seager, seager@ldeo.columbia.edu
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