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Bradfield Lyon

Abstract

Torrential rainfall during December 1999 resulted in devastating floods and landslides along the northern coast of Venezuela. These events occurred in an area with a predominantly dry climate, took place during what is regionally the dry season, and were preceded by unusually heavy seasonal rainfall. An observational study was undertaken in an attempt to identify anomalous features of the climate system associated with both the enhanced seasonal rainfall prior to the landslides as well as the extreme December rainfall events that triggered them. Observational data for the period 1950–99 are used to provide historical context. Results indicate that the copious seasonal rainfall prior to the floods was associated with anomalous conditions in both the tropical Pacific and Atlantic basins similar to past events, although some features were unusually strong in 1999. The extreme daily rainfall in December 1999 was associated with atmospheric circulation features originating in the extratropical Northern Hemisphere that penetrated unusually far into the Tropics. Possible physical mechanisms acting to enhance rainfall on both timescales are discussed.

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Bradfield Lyon

Abstract

In much of East Africa, climatological rainfall follows a bimodal distribution characterized by the long rains (March–May) and short rains (October–December). Most CMIP5 coupled models fail to properly simulate this annual cycle, typically reversing the amplitudes of the short and long rains relative to observations. This study investigates how CMIP5 climatological sea surface temperature (SST) biases contribute to simulation errors in the annual cycle of East African rainfall. Monthly biases in CMIP5 climatological SSTs (50°S–50°N) are first identified in historical runs (1979–2005) from 31 models and examined for consistency. An atmospheric general circulation model (AGCM) is then forced with observed SSTs (1979–2005) generating a set of control runs and observed SSTs plus the monthly, multimodel mean SST biases generating a set of “bias” runs for the same period. The control runs generally capture the observed annual cycle of East African rainfall while the bias runs capture prominent CMIP5 annual cycle biases, including too little (much) precipitation during the long rains (short rains) and a 1-month lag in the peak of the long rains relative to observations. Diagnostics reveal the annual cycle biases are associated with seasonally varying north–south- and east–west-oriented SST bias patterns in Indian Ocean and regional-scale atmospheric circulation and stability changes, the latter primarily associated with changes in low-level moist static energy. Overall, the results indicate that CMIP5 climatological SST biases are the primary driver of the improper simulation of the annual cycle of East African rainfall. Some implications for climate change projections are discussed.

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Bradfield Lyon

Abstract

Observations of daily maximum temperature (Tx) and monthly precipitation and their counterpart fields from three coupled models from the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase 3 (CMIP3) archive have been used for exploratory research into the behavior of heat waves, drought, and their joint occurrence across the southern Africa subcontinent. The focus is on seasonal drought and heat waves during austral summer [December–February (DJF)] for land areas south of 15°S. Observational results (Tx available only for South Africa) are compared with those based on CMIP3 twentieth-century climate runs for a common analysis period of 1961–2000 while climate projections for the twenty-first century are also considered using the Special Report on Emissions Scenarios (SRES) A1B forcing scenario. Heat waves were defined when daily Tx values exceeded the 90th percentile for at least 3 consecutive days, while drought was identified via a standardized index of seasonal precipitation. When assessed over the entire study domain the unconditional probability of a heat wave, and its conditional probability given drought conditions, were similar in the models and (for a smaller domain) observations. The models exhibited less ability in reproducing the observed conditional probability of a heat wave given El Niño conditions. This appears to be related to a comparatively weak seasonal precipitation teleconnection pattern into southern Africa in the models during El Niño when drought conditions often develop. The heat wave–drought relationship did not substantially change in climate projections when computing anomalies from future climate means. However, relative to a 1981–2000 base period, the probability of a heat wave increases by over 3.5 times relative to the current climate. Projections across the three models suggest a future drying trend during DJF although this was found to be a model-dependent result, consistent with other studies. However, a decreasing trend in the evaporative fraction was identified across models, indicating that evaluation of future drought conditions needs to take into account both the supply (precipitation) and demand (evaporation) side of the surface water balance.

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Bradfield Lyon

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This paper provides a review of atmospheric circulation and sea surface temperature (SST) conditions that are associated with meteorological drought on the seasonal time scale in the Greater Horn of Africa (the region 10°S–15°N, 30°–52°E). New findings regarding a post-1998 increase in drought frequency during the March–May (MAM) “long rains” are also reported. The period 1950–2010 is emphasized, although rainfall and SST data from 1901–2010 are used to place the recent long rains decline in a multidecadal context. For the latter case, climate model simulations and isolated basin SST experiments are also utilized.

Climatologically, rainfall exhibits a unimodal June–August (JJA) maximum in west-central Ethiopia with a generally bimodal [MAM and October–December (OND) maxima] distribution in locations to the south and east. Emphasis will be on these three seasons. SST anomalies in the tropical Pacific and Indian Oceans show the strongest association with drought during OND in locations having a bimodal annual cycle, with weaker associations during MAM. The influence of the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) phenomenon critically depends on its ability to affect SSTs outside the Pacific. Salient features of the anomalous atmospheric circulation during drought events in different locations and seasons are discussed. The post-1998 decline in the long rains is found to be driven strongly (although not necessarily exclusively) by natural multidecadal variability in the tropical Pacific rather than anthropogenic climate change. This conclusion is supported by observational analyses and climate model experiments, which are presented.

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Bradfield Lyon and Anthony G. Barnston

Abstract

The extreme phases of El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) are known to dominate the interannual variability of tropical rainfall. However, the relationship between ENSO and the spatial extent of drought and excessively wet conditions is an important characteristic of the tropical climate that has received relatively less attention from researchers. Here, a standardized precipitation index is computed from monthly rainfall analyses and the temporal variability of the spatial extent of such extremes, for various levels of severity, is examined from a Tropics-wide perspective (land areas only, 30°S–30°N). Maxima in the spatial extent of both precipitation extremes are compared across multiple ENSO events that occurred during the period 1950–2003. The focus on tropical land areas is motivated by the numerous, often negative, impacts of ENSO-related precipitation variability on human populations.

Results show that major peaks in the spatial extent of drought and excessively wet conditions are generally associated with extreme phases of ENSO. A remarkably robust linear relationship is documented between the spatial extent of drought in the Tropics and El Niño strength (based on Niño-3.4 sea surface temperature anomalies), with a comparatively weaker relationship for La Niña and excessive wetness. Both conditions are found to increase by about a factor of 2 between strong and weak ENSO events, and in several locations they are shown to be more likely during ENSO events than at all other times, especially for severe categories. Relatively stronger El Niño events during recent decades are associated with increased drought extent in tropical land areas with increasing surface temperatures likely acting to exacerbate these dry conditions.

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Bradfield Lyon and Anthony G. Barnston

Abstract

Heat waves are climate extremes having significant environmental and social impacts. However, there is no universally accepted definition of a heat wave. The major goal of this study is to compare characteristics of continental U.S. warm season (May–September) heat waves defined using four different variables—temperature itself and three variables incorporating atmospheric moisture—all for differing intensity and duration requirements. To normalize across different locations and climates, daily intensity is defined using percentiles computed over the 1979–2013 period. The primary data source is the U.S. Historical Climatological Network (USHCN), with humidity data from the North American Regional Reanalysis (NARR) also tested and utilized. The results indicate that heat waves defined using daily maximum temperatures are more frequent and persistent than when based on minimum temperatures, with substantial regional variations in behavior. For all four temperature variables, heat waves based on daily minimum values have greater spatial coherency than for daily maximum values. Regionally, statistically significant upward trends (1979–2013) in heat wave frequency are identified, largest when based on daily minimum values, across variables. Other notable differences in behavior include a higher frequency of heat waves based on maximum temperature itself than for variables that include humidity, while daily minimum temperatures show greater similarity across all variables in this regard. Overall, the study provides a baseline to compare with results from climate model simulations and projections, for examining differing regional and large-scale circulation patterns associated with U.S. summer heat waves and for examining the role of land surface conditions in modulating regional variations in heat wave behavior.

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Kingtse C. Mo and Bradfield Lyon

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Precipitation forecasts from six climate models in the North American Multi-Model Ensemble (NMME) are combined with observed precipitation data to generate forecasts of the standardized precipitation index (SPI) for global land areas, and their skill was evaluated over the period 1982–2010. The skill of monthly precipitation forecasts from the NMME is also assessed. The value-added utility in using the NMME models to predict the SPI is identified by comparing the skill of its forecasts with a baseline skill based solely on the inherent persistence characteristics of the SPI itself. As expected, skill of the NMME-generated SPI forecasts depends on the season, location, and specific index considered (the 3- and 6-month SPI were evaluated). In virtually all locations and seasons, statistically significant skill is found at lead times of 1–2 months, although the skill comes largely from initial conditions. Added skill from the NMME is primarily in regions exhibiting El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) teleconnections. Knowledge of the initial drought state is critical in SPI prediction, and there are considerable differences in observed SPI values between different datasets. Root-mean-square differences between datasets can exceed typical thresholds for drought, particularly in the tropics. This is particularly problematic for precipitation products available in near–real time. Thus, in the near term, the largest advances in the global prediction of meteorological drought are obtainable from improvements in near-real-time precipitation observations for the globe. In the longer term, improvements in precipitation forecast skill from dynamical models will be essential in this effort.

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Bradfield Lyon and Simon J. Mason

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This is the second of a two-part investigation of rainfall in southern Africa during the strong El Niño of 1997/98. In Part I it was shown that widespread drought in southern Africa, typical of past El Niño events occurring between 1950 and 2000, generally failed to materialize during the 1997/98 El Niño, most notably during January–March (JFM) 1998. Here output from three atmospheric general circulation models (AGCMs) forced with observed sea surface temperatures (SSTs) and seasonal forecasts from three coupled models are examined to see to what extent conditions in JFM 1998 could have potentially been anticipated.

All three AGCMs generated widespread drought conditions across southern Africa, similar to those during past El Niño events, and did a generally poor job in generating the observed rainfall and atmospheric circulation anomaly patterns, particularly over the eastern and southern Indian Ocean. In contrast, two of the three coupled models showed a higher probability of wetter conditions in JFM 1998 than for past El Niño events, with an enhanced moisture flux from the Indian Ocean, as was observed. However, neither the AGCMs nor the coupled models generated anomalous stationary wave patterns consistent with observations over the South Atlantic and Pacific. The failure of any of the models to reproduce an enhanced Angola low (favoring rainfall) associated with an anomalous wave train in this region suggests that the coupled models that did indicate wetter conditions in JFM 1998 compared to previous El Niño episodes may have done so, at least partially, for the wrong reasons. The general inability of the climate models used in this study to generate key features of the seasonal climate over southern Africa in JFM 1998 suggests that internal atmospheric variability contributed to the observed rainfall and circulation patterns that year. With the caveat that current climate models may not properly respond to SST boundary forcing important to simulating southern Africa climate, this study finds that the JFM 1998 rainfall in southern Africa may have been largely unpredictable on seasonal time scales.

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Anthony G. Barnston and Bradfield Lyon

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A global-scale decadal climate shift, beginning in 1998/99 and enduring through 2013, has been documented in recent studies, with associated precipitation shifts in key regions throughout the world. These precipitation shifts are most easily detected during March–May when ENSO effects are weak. Analyses have linked this climate shift to a shift in the Pacific decadal variability (PDV) pattern to its negative phase. Here the authors evaluate the predictive skill of the North American Multimodel Ensemble (NMME), and the CFSv2 model alone, in maintaining the observed precipitation shifts in seasonal forecasts, emphasizing the southwestern United States where deficient precipitation has tended to prevail since the late 1990s.

The NMME hindcasts out to 6 months lead are found to maintain the observed decadal precipitation shifts in key locations qualitatively correctly, but with increasingly underestimated amplitude with increasing lead time. This finding holds in the separate CFSv2 model hindcasts. The decadal precipitation shift is relatively well reproduced in the southwestern United States. The general underestimation of the precipitation shift is suggested to be related to a muted reproduction of the observed shift in Pacific sea surface temperature (SST). This conclusion is supported by runs from a different (but overlapping) set of atmospheric models, which when forced with observed SST reproduce the decadal shifts quite well. Overall, the capability of the NMME model hindcasts to reflect the observed decadal rainfall pattern shift, but with weakened amplitude (especially at longer leads), underscores the broader challenge of retaining decadal signals in predictions of droughts and pluvials at seasonal-to-interannual time scales.

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Bradfield Lyon and Randall M. Dole

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Observational analyses are performed to examine the roles of remote and local forcing in the evolutions of the extreme U.S. summer heat wave-drought cases of 1980 and 1988. At early stages, both events are associated with anomalous stationary wave patterns. Wave activity flux analyses suggest that in the 1980 case anomalous wave activity propagates southeastward from an apparent source region to the south of the Aleutians. The flux pattern is more complex in the 1988 case but suggests two possible source regions, one over the central North Pacific to the north of the Hawaiian Islands and a second located over the far western Pacific. The 1988 analyses show no anomalous wave propagation out of the eastern tropical Pacific, although this result does not necessarily preclude a role for tropical forcing in generating the anomalous wave train.

In both cases the anomalous wave trains and associated wave activity fluxes become very weak by early July, indicating that remotely forced anomalous stationary waves are unlikely to account for the later stages of the heat wave-droughts. This leads us to examine whether these events were enhanced or prolonged by changes in the local surface energy budget associated with reductions in evapotranspiration (ET) over the drought regions. Water vapor budgets show a systematic decrease in monthly mean ET from June to August during both events. Comparisons with nondrought summers support the idea that by late summer ET rates in both events are anomalously low. Estimated reductions in surface latent heat fluxes relative to the control years are approximately 50 W m−2 in 1980 and 20 W m−2 in 1988, with implied increases in sensible heating of similar magnitudes.

Overall, the results indicate the importance of both dynamical forcing from remote sources and anomalous local boundary conditions in accounting for the two extreme heat wave-drought events. The relative importance of these factors varies significantly during the evolution of the events, with remote forcing playing a predominant role at early stages and anomalous local boundary conditions assuming increasing importance at later stages.

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