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Richard Seager, Jamie Feldman, Nathan Lis, Mingfang Ting, Alton P. Williams, Jennifer Nakamura, Haibo Liu, and Naomi Henderson

Abstract

The 100th meridian bisects the Great Plains of the United States and effectively divides the continent into more arid western and less arid eastern halves and is well expressed in terms of vegetation, land hydrology, crops, and the farm economy. Here, it is considered how this arid–humid divide will change in intensity and location during the current century under rising greenhouse gases. It is first shown that state-of-the-art climate models from phase 5 of the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project generally underestimate the degree of aridity of the United States and simulate an arid–humid divide that is too diffuse. These biases are traced to excessive precipitation and evapotranspiration and inadequate blocking of eastward moisture flux by the Pacific coastal ranges and Rockies. Bias-corrected future projections are developed that modify observationally based measures of aridity by the model-projected fractional changes in aridity. Aridity increases across the United States, and the aridity gradient weakens. The main contributor to the changes is rising potential evapotranspiration, while changes in precipitation working alone increase aridity across the southern and decrease across the northern United States. The “effective 100th meridian” moves to the east as the century progresses. In the current farm economy, farm size and percent of county under rangelands increase and percent of cropland under corn decreases as aridity increases. Statistical relations between these quantities and the bias-corrected aridity projections suggest that, all else being equal (which it will not be), adjustment to changing environmental conditions would cause farm size and rangeland area to increase across the plains and percent of cropland under corn to decrease in the northern plains as the century advances.

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Richard Seager, Nathan Lis, Jamie Feldman, Mingfang Ting, A. Park Williams, Jennifer Nakamura, Haibo Liu, and Naomi Henderson

Abstract

John Wesley Powell, in the nineteenth century, introduced the notion that the 100th meridian divides the North American continent into arid western regions and humid eastern regions. This concept remains firmly fixed in the national imagination. It is reexamined in terms of climate, hydrology, vegetation, land use, settlement, and the agricultural economy. It is shown there is a stark east–west gradient in aridity roughly at the 100th meridian that is well expressed in hydroclimate, soil moisture, and “potential vegetation.” The gradient arises from atmospheric circulations and moisture transports. In winter, the arid regions west of the 100th meridian are shielded from Pacific storm-related precipitation and are too far west to benefit from Atlantic storms. In summer, the southerly flow on the western flank of the North Atlantic subtropical high has a westerly component over the western plains, bringing air from the interior southwest, but it also brings air from the Gulf of Mexico over the eastern plains, generating a west–east moisture transport and precipitation gradient. The aridity gradient is realized in soil moisture and a west-to-east transition from shortgrass to tallgrass prairie. The gradient is sharp in terms of greater fractional coverage of developed land east of the 100th meridian than to the west. Farms are fewer but larger west of the meridian, reflective of lower land productivity. Wheat and corn cultivation preferentially occur west and east of the 100th meridian, respectively. The 100th meridian is a very real arid–humid divide in the physical climate and landscape, and this has exerted a powerful influence on human settlement and agricultural development.

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Tristan Ballard, Richard Seager, Jason E. Smerdon, Benjamin I. Cook, Andrea J. Ray, Balaji Rajagopalan, Yochanan Kushnir, Jennifer Nakamura, and Naomi Henderson

Abstract

The Prairie Pothole Region (PPR) of the northern Great Plains is a vital ecosystem responsible each year for producing 50%–80% of new recruits to the North American duck population. Climate variability and change can impact the hydrology and ecology of the region with implications for waterfowl populations. The historical relationship between PPR wetlands, duck populations, and seasonal hydroclimate are explored. Model experiments from phase 5 of the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project are used to determine whether a recent wetting trend is due to natural variability or changing climate and how PPR hydroclimate will change into the future. Year-to-year variations in May duck populations, pond numbers, and the Palmer drought severity index are well correlated over past decades. Pond and duck numbers tend to increase in spring following La Niña events, but the correlation is not strong. Model simulations suggest that the strengthening of the precipitation gradient across the PPR over the past century is predominantly due to natural variability and therefore could reverse. Model projections of future climate indicate precipitation will increase across the PPR in all seasons except summer, but this gain for surface moisture is largely offset by increased evapotranspiration because of higher temperatures and increased atmospheric evaporative demand. In summer, the combined effects of warming and precipitation changes indicate seasonal surface drying in the future. The presented hydroclimate analyses produce potential inputs to ecological and hydrological simulations of PPR wetlands to inform risk analysis of how this North American waterfowl habitat will evolve in the future, providing guidance to land managers facing conservation decisions.

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