Abstract

The predictability on the seasonal time scale of meteorological drought onsets and terminations over the southern Great Plains is examined within the North American Multimodel Ensemble. The drought onsets and terminations were those identified based on soil moisture transitions in land data assimilation systems and shown to be driven by precipitation anomalies. Sea surface temperature (SST) forcing explains about a quarter of variance of seasonal mean precipitation in the region. However, at lead times of a season, forecast SSTs only explain about 10% of seasonal mean precipitation variance. For the three identified drought onsets, fall 2010 is confidently predicted and spring 2012 is predicted with some skill, and fall 2005 was not predicted at all. None of the drought terminations were predicted on the seasonal time scale. Predictability of drought onset arises from La Niña–like conditions, but there is no indication that El Niño conditions lead to drought terminations in the southern Great Plains. Spring 2012 and fall 2000 are further examined. The limited predictability of onset in spring 2012 arises from cool tropical Pacific SSTs, but internal atmospheric variability played a very important role. Drought termination in fall 2000 was predicted at the 1-month time scale but not at the seasonal time scale, likely because of failure to predict warm SST anomalies directly east of subtropical Asia. The work suggests that improved SST prediction offers some potential for improved prediction of both drought onsets and terminations in the southern Great Plains, but that many onsets and terminations will not be predictable even a season in advance.

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