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Falko K. Fye, David W. Stahle, and Edward R. Cook

Abstract

Three great moisture anomalies were observed during the twentieth century over the western United States: a pluvial from 1905 to 1917, the Dust Bowl drought (1929–40), and the Southwestern drought of 1946–56. A composite analysis of the concurrent Pacific sea surface temperature (SST) field is used to infer the atmospheric circulation that may have been associated with these objectively defined decadal dry and wet periods. The early-twentieth-century pluvial occurred during a 13-yr SST regime with unusually cold water in the northern and northwestern North Pacific and in the eastern North Pacific. This pattern would favor a “Pineapple Express–like” mean storm track into the west. Warm ENSO-like conditions also observed during the pluvial would have favored an enhanced subtropical jet stream into the southwestern United States. The 11-yr Dust Bowl drought occurred during a poorly defined Pacific SST regime, although unusually cold water was present in the far western North Pacific. Weak warm SST conditions were also noted in the extreme northeastern North Pacific. This cold west–warm east SST pattern, although weak for the full 11-yr interval, may have contributed to positive atmospheric geopotential heights over the western and central United States during the Dust Bowl drought. Cooler SSTs in the eastern equatorial Pacific during some of the Dust Bowl years (e.g., 1934, 1935, 1938, and 1939) suggest a possible La Niña influence. La Niña conditions definitely seemed to have contributed to the 1950s drought, but the most anomalous SSTs for the 11-yr average were observed in the west-central North Pacific. The overall Pacific SST field during the 1946–56 drought was consistent with the cool phase of the Pacific decadal oscillation, and the warm SSTs in the west-central North Pacific would have favored a trough over the central North Pacific and a ridge over western North America in the upper-tropospheric flow.

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