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Fong-Chiau Chang and Eric A. Smith


A drought pattern and its time evolution over the U.S. Great Plains are investigated from time series of climate divisional monthly mean surface air temperature and total precipitation anomalies. The spatial pattern consists of correlated occurrences of high (low) surface air temperature and deficit (excess) rainfall. The center of maximum amplitude in rain fluctuation is around Kansas City; that of temperature is over South Dakota. Internal consistency between temperature and precipitation variability is the salient feature of the drought pattern. A drought index is used to quantify drought severity for the period 1895–1996. The 12 severest drought months (in order) during this period are June 1933, June 1988, July 1936, August 1983, July 1934, July 1901, June 1931, August 1947, July 1930, June 1936, July 1954, and August 1936. Hydrological conditions are examined using National Centers for Environmental Prediction (NCEP) reanalysis precipitable water (PW) and monthly surface observations from Kansas City, Missouri, and Bismarck, North Dakota, near the drought centers. This analysis explains why droughts exhibit negative surface relative humidity anomalies accompanied by larger than normal monthly mean daily temperature ranges and why maximum PWs are confined to a strip of about 10° longitude from New Mexico and Arizona into the Dakotas and Minnesota.

Dynamical conditions are examined using NCEP reanalysis sea level pressures and 500- and 200-mb geopotential heights. The analysis indicates a midtroposphere wave train with positive centers situated over the North Pacific, North America, and the North Atlantic, with negative centers in the southeastern Gulf of Alaska and Davis Strait. Above-normal sea level pressures over New Mexico, the North Atlantic, and the subtropical Pacific along with below-normal sea level pressures over the Gulf of Alaska eastward to Canada, Davis Strait, and Greenland are present during drought periods. The most prominent feature is the strong anticyclone over central North America.

On a regional scale, midtropospheric westerly winds are weakened (or become easterly) south of a thermal heat low centered in South Dakota during drought episodes because of the north–south temperature reversal perturbation. The associated westward displaced Bermuda high leads to enhanced low-level warm flow into the Dakotas, thus helping to maintain the reversal in the meridional temperature gradient and the concomitant thermal wind reversal. Enhanced moisture transport from the Gulf of California into the western plains (part of the Great Basin monsoon process) results from the large-scale perturbation pressure pattern. Middle-upper level convergence maintains the water vapor strip east of the Rocky Mountains, while the Mississippi valley undergoes moisture cutoff from both this process and the westward shift in the Bermuda high. The strip of maximum PW then undergoes enhanced solar and infrared absorption that feeds back on the thermal heat low. Surface air temperatures warm while sinking motion balances middle-upper level radiative cooling around the Kansas City area. This is the dynamical coupling that leads to reduced surface relative humidities. The centers of high surface air temperature and deficit rainfall are dynamically consistent with patterns in geopotential heights, vertical velocities, and water vapor amounts.

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