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Celine Herweijer, Richard Seager, Edward R. Cook, and Julien Emile-Geay

Abstract

Drought is the most economically expensive recurring natural disaster to strike North America in modern times. Recently available gridded drought reconstructions have been developed for most of North America from a network of drought-sensitive tree-ring chronologies, many of which span the last 1000 yr. These reconstructions enable the authors to put the famous droughts of the instrumental record (i.e., the 1930s Dust Bowl and the 1950s Southwest droughts) into the context of 1000 yr of natural drought variability on the continent. We can now, with this remarkable new record, examine the severity, persistence, spatial signatures, and frequencies of drought variability over the past milllennium, and how these have changed with time.

The gridded drought reconstructions reveal the existence of successive “megadroughts,” unprecedented in persistence (20–40 yr), yet similar in year-to-year severity and spatial distribution to the major droughts experienced in today’s North America. These megadroughts occurred during a 400-yr-long period in the early to middle second millennium a.d., with a climate varying as today’s, but around a drier mean. The implication is that the mechanism forcing persistent drought in the West and the Plains in the instrumental era is analagous to that underlying the megadroughts of the medieval period. The leading spatial mode of drought variability in the recontructions resembles the North American ENSO pattern: widespread drought across the United States, centered on the Southwest, with a hint of the opposite phase in the Pacific Northwest.

Recently, climate models forced by the observed history of tropical Pacific SSTs have been able to successfully simulate all of the major North American droughts of the last 150 yr. In each case, cool “La Niña–like” conditions in the tropical Pacific are consistent with North American drought. With ENSO showing a pronounced signal in the gridded drought recontructions of the last millennium, both in terms of its link to the leading spatial mode, and the leading time scales of drought variability (revealed by multitaper spectral analysis and wavelet analysis), it is postulated that, as for the modern day, the medieval megadroughts were forced by protracted La Niña–like tropical Pacific SSTs. Further evidence for this comes from the global hydroclimatic “footprint” of the medieval era revealed by existing paleoclimatic archives from the tropical Pacific and ENSO-sensitive tropical and extratropical land regions. In general, this global pattern matches that observed for modern-day persistent North American drought, whereby a La Niña–like tropical Pacific is accompanied by hemispheric, and in the midlatitudes, zonal, symmetry of hydroclimatic anomalies.

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Alicia R. Karspeck, Richard Seager, and Mark A. Cane

Abstract

The Zebiak–Cane (ZC) model for simulation of the El Niño–Southern Oscillation is shown to be capable of producing sequences of variability that exhibit shifts in the time-mean state of the eastern equatorial Pacific that resemble observations of tropical Pacific decadal variability. The model's performance in predicting these shifts is compared to two naive forecasting strategies. It is found that the ZC model consistently outperforms the two naive forecasts that serve as a null hypothesis in assessing the significance of results. Forecasts initialized during anomalously warm and anomalously cold decades are shown to have the highest predictability.

These modeling results suggest that, to a moderate extent, the state of the tropical Pacific in one decade can predetermine its time-mean state in the following decade. However, even in this idealized context decadal forecasting skill is modest. Results are discussed in the context of their implications for the ongoing debate over the origin of decadal variations in the Pacific.

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Isla R. Simpson, Richard Seager, Tiffany A. Shaw, and Mingfang Ting

Abstract

In summer, the atmospheric circulation over the Mediterranean is characterized by localized intense subsidence and low-level northerlies over the central to eastern portion of the basin. Here, simulations with the Community Atmosphere Model, version 5 are used to investigate the influence of the elevated terrain of North Africa and the Middle East on this summertime circulation. This builds on previous work that recognized a role for North African topography in localizing the Mediterranean subsidence.

By flattening the two regions of elevated terrain in the model, it is demonstrated that, while they both conspire to produce about 30% of the summertime subsidence, contrary to previous work, the mountains of the Middle East dominate in this topographic contribution by far. This topography, consisting primarily of the Zagros mountain range, alters the circulation throughout the depth of the troposphere over the Mediterranean and farther east. The model results suggest that about 20% of the Mediterranean summertime moisture deficit can be attributed to this mountain-induced circulation. This topography, therefore, plays an important role in the climate of the Mediterranean and the large-scale circulation over the rest of Eurasia during the summer.

Further stationary wave modeling reveals that the mountain influence is produced via mechanical forcing of the flow. The greatest influence of the topography occurs when the low-level incident flow is easterly, as happens during the summer, primarily because of the presence of condensational heating over Asia. During other seasons, when the low-level incident flow is westerly, the influence of Middle East topography on the Mediterranean is negligible.

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Isla R. Simpson, Tiffany A. Shaw, and Richard Seager

Abstract

Zonal-mean or basin-mean analyses often conclude that the midlatitude circulation will undergo a poleward shift with global warming. In this study, the models from phase 5 of the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project are used to provide a detailed examination of midlatitude circulation change as a function of longitude and season. The two-dimensional vertically integrated momentum budget is used to identify the dominant terms that maintain the anomalous surface wind stress, thereby allowing a distinction between features that are maintained by high-frequency eddies and those that involve changes in the lower-frequency or stationary flow.

In the zonal mean, in each season and hemisphere there is a poleward shifting of the midlatitude surface wind stress, primarily maintained by high-frequency transient eddies. This is not necessarily the case locally. In the Southern Hemisphere, for the most part, the interpretation of the response as being a high-frequency eddy-driven poleward shifting of the midlatitude westerlies holds true. The Northern Hemisphere is considerably more complex with only the fall months showing a robust poleward shift of both the Atlantic and Pacific jets. During the winter months the jet in the east Pacific actually shifts equatorward and the Atlantic jet strengthens over Europe. An important role for altered climatological stationary waves in these responses is found. This motivates future work that should focus on zonal asymmetries and stationary wave changes, as well as the changes in high-frequency transients that bring about the poleward shifting of the westerlies in the zonal mean.

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M. Hoerling, J. Eischeid, A. Kumar, R. Leung, A. Mariotti, K. Mo, S. Schubert, and R. Seager

Central Great Plains precipitation deficits during May–August 2012 were the most severe since at least 1895, eclipsing the Dust Bowl summers of 1934 and 1936. Drought developed suddenly in May, following near-normal precipitation during winter and early spring. Its proximate causes were a reduction in atmospheric moisture transport into the Great Plains from the Gulf of Mexico. Processes that generally provide air mass lift and condensation were mostly absent, including a lack of frontal cyclones in late spring followed by suppressed deep convection in the summer owing to large-scale subsidence and atmospheric stabilization.

Seasonal forecasts did not predict the summer 2012 central Great Plains drought development, which therefore arrived without early warning. Climate simulations and empirical analysis suggest that ocean surface temperatures together with changes in greenhouse gases did not induce a substantial reduction in sum mertime precipitation over the central Great Plains during 2012. Yet, diagnosis of the retrospective climate simulations also reveals a regime shift toward warmer and drier summertime Great Plains conditions during the recent decade, most probably due to natural decadal variability. As a consequence, the probability of the severe summer Great Plains drought occurring may have increased in the last decade compared to the 1980s and 1990s, and the so-called tail risk for severe drought may have been heightened in summer 2012. Such an extreme drought event was nonetheless still found to be a rare occurrence within the spread of 2012 climate model simulations. The implications of this study's findings for U.S. seasonal drought forecasting are discussed.

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Benjamin I. Cook, Jason E. Smerdon, Richard Seager, and Edward R. Cook

Abstract

Regional droughts are common in North America, but pan-continental droughts extending across multiple regions, including the 2012 event, are rare relative to single-region events. Here, the tree-ring-derived North American Drought Atlas is used to investigate drought variability in four regions over the last millennium, focusing on pan-continental droughts. During the Medieval Climate Anomaly (MCA), the central plains (CP), Southwest (SW), and Southeast (SE) regions experienced drier conditions and increased occurrence of droughts and the Northwest (NW) experienced several extended pluvials. Enhanced MCA aridity in the SW and CP manifested as multidecadal megadroughts. Notably, megadroughts in these regions differed in their timing and persistence, suggesting that they represent regional events influenced by local dynamics rather than a unified, continental-scale phenomena. There is no trend in pan-continental drought occurrence, defined as synchronous droughts in three or more regions. SW, CP, and SE (SW+CP+SE) droughts are the most common, occurring in 12% of all years and peaking in prevalence during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries; patterns involving three other regions occur in about 8% of years. Positive values of the Southern Oscillation index (La Niña conditions) are linked to SW, CP, and SE (SW+CP+SE) droughts and SW, CP, and NW (SW+CP+NW) droughts, whereas CP, NW, and SE (CP+NW+SE) droughts are associated with positive values of the Pacific decadal oscillation and Atlantic multidecadal oscillation. While relatively rare, pan-continental droughts are present in the paleo record and are linked to defined modes of climate variability, implying the potential for seasonal predictability. Assuming stable drought teleconnections, these events will remain an important feature of future North American hydroclimate, possibly increasing in their severity in step with other expected hydroclimate responses to increased greenhouse gas forcing.

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Isla R Simpson, Peter Hitchcock, Richard Seager, Yutian Wu, and Patrick Callaghan

Abstract

General circulation models display a wide range of future predicted changes in the Northern Hemisphere winter stratospheric polar vortex. The downward influence of this stratospheric uncertainty on the troposphere has previously been inferred from regression analyses across models and is thought to contribute to model spread in tropospheric circulation change. Here we complement such regression analyses with idealized experiments using one model where different changes in the zonal-mean stratospheric polar vortex are artificially imposed to mimic the extreme ends of polar vortex change simulated by models from phase 5 of the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP5). The influence of the stratospheric vortex change on the tropospheric circulation in these experiments is quantitatively in agreement with the inferred downward influence from across-model regressions, indicating that such regressions depict a true downward influence of stratospheric vortex change on the troposphere below. With a relative weakening of the polar vortex comes a relative increase in Arctic sea level pressure (SLP), a decrease in zonal wind over the North Atlantic, drying over northern Europe, and wetting over southern Europe. The contribution of stratospheric vortex change to intermodel spread in these quantities is assessed in the CMIP5 models. The spread, as given by 4 times the across-model standard deviation, is reduced by roughly 10% on regressing out the contribution from stratospheric vortex change, while the difference between models on extreme ends of the distribution in terms of their stratospheric vortex change can reach up to 50% of the overall model spread for Arctic SLP and 20% of the overall spread in European precipitation.

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Julien Emile-Geay, Richard Seager, Mark A. Cane, Edward R. Cook, and Gerald H. Haug

Abstract

The controversial claim that El Niño events might be partially caused by radiative forcing due to volcanic aerosols is reassessed. Building on the work of Mann et al., estimates of volcanic forcing over the past millennium and a climate model of intermediate complexity are used to draw a diagram of El Niño likelihood as a function of the intensity of volcanic forcing. It is shown that in the context of this model, only eruptions larger than that of Mt. Pinatubo (1991, peak dimming of about 3.7 W m−2) can shift the likelihood and amplitude of an El Niño event above the level of the model’s internal variability. Explosive volcanism cannot be said to trigger El Niño events per se, but it is found to raise their likelihood by 50% on average, also favoring higher amplitudes. This reconciles, on one hand, the demonstration by Adams et al. of a statistical relationship between explosive volcanism and El Niño and, on the other hand, the ability to predict El Niño events of the last 148 yr without knowledge of volcanic forcing.

The authors then focus on the strongest eruption of the millennium (A.D. 1258), and show that it is likely to have favored the occurrence of a moderate-to-strong El Niño event in the midst of prevailing La Niña–like conditions induced by increased solar activity during the well-documented Medieval Climate Anomaly. Compiling paleoclimate data from a wide array of sources, a number of important hydroclimatic consequences for neighboring areas is documented. The authors propose, in particular, that the event briefly interrupted a solar-induced megadrought in the southwestern United States. Most of the time, however, volcanic eruptions are found to be too small to significantly affect ENSO statistics.

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Richard Seager, Timothy J. Osborn, Yochanan Kushnir, Isla R. Simpson, Jennifer Nakamura, and Haibo Liu

Abstract

Mediterranean-type climates are defined by temperate, wet winters, and hot or warm dry summers and exist at the western edges of five continents in locations determined by the geography of winter storm tracks and summer subtropical anticyclones. The climatology, variability, and long-term changes in winter precipitation in Mediterranean-type climates, and the mechanisms for model-projected near-term future change, are analyzed. Despite commonalities in terms of location in the context of planetary-scale dynamics, the causes of variability are distinct across the regions. Internal atmospheric variability is the dominant source of winter precipitation variability in all Mediterranean-type climate regions, but only in the Mediterranean is this clearly related to annular mode variability. Ocean forcing of variability is a notable influence only for California and Chile. As a consequence, potential predictability of winter precipitation variability in the regions is low. In all regions, the trend in winter precipitation since 1901 is similar to that which arises as a response to changes in external forcing in the models participating in phase 5 of the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project. All Mediterranean-type climate regions, except in North America, have dried and the models project further drying over coming decades. In the Northern Hemisphere, dynamical processes are responsible: development of a winter ridge over the Mediterranean that suppresses precipitation and of a trough west of the North American west coast that shifts the Pacific storm track equatorward. In the Southern Hemisphere, mixed dynamic–thermodynamic changes are important that place a minimum in vertically integrated water vapor change at the coast and enhance zonal dry advection into Mediterranean-type climate regions inland.

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Jason E. Smerdon, Benjamin I. Cook, Edward R. Cook, and Richard Seager

Abstract

Potential biases in tree-ring reconstructed Palmer drought severity index (PDSI) are evaluated using Thornthwaite (TH), Penman–Monteith (PM), and self-calibrating Penman–Monteith (SC) PDSI in three diverse regions of the United States and tree-ring chronologies from the North American drought atlas (NADA). Minimal differences are found between the three PDSI reconstructions and all compare favorably to independently reconstructed Thornthwaite-based PDSI from the NADA. Reconstructions are bridged with model-derived PDSI_TH and PDSI_PM, which both closely track modeled soil moisture (near surface and full column) during the twentieth century. Differences between modeled moisture-balance metrics only emerge in twenty-first-century projections. These differences confirm the tendency of PDSI_TH to overestimate drying when temperatures exceed the range of the normalization interval; the more physical accounting of PDSI_PM compares well with modeled soil moisture in the projection interval. Remaining regional differences in the secular behavior of projected soil moisture and PDSI_PM are interpreted in terms of underlying physical processes and temporal sampling. Results demonstrate the continued utility of PDSI as a metric of surface moisture balance while additionally providing two recommendations for future work: 1) PDSI_PM (or similar moisture-balance metrics) compare well to modeled soil moisture and are an appropriate means of representing soil-moisture balance in model simulations and 2) although PDSI_PM is more physically appropriate than PDSI_TH, the latter metric does not bias tree-ring reconstructions of past hydroclimate variability and, as such, reconstructions targeting PDSI_TH can be used with confidence in data–model comparisons. These recommendations and the collective results of this study thus provide a framework for comparing hydroclimate variability within paleoclimatic, observational, and modeled data.

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