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Ocean-forcing of cool season precipitation drives ongoing and future decadal drought in southwestern North America

Presentation Date
Wednesday, December 13, 2023 at 4:10pm - Wednesday, December 13, 2023 at 4:20pm
MC - 2005 - West



The US Southwest is in a drought crisis that has been developing over the past two decades, contributing to marked increases in burned forest area and unprecedented efforts to reduce water consumption. Climate change has contributed to this ongoing decadal drought via warming that has increased evaporative demand and reduced snowpack and streamflows. However, on the supply side, precipitation has been low during the 21st century. Here, using simulations with an atmosphere model forced by imposed sea surface temperatures, we show that the 21st century shift to cooler tropical Pacific sea surface temperatures forced a decline in cool season precipitation that in turn drove a decline in spring to summer soil moisture in the southwest. Using a novel experimental design, we then project the near-term future out to 2040, accounting for plausible and realistic natural decadal variability of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans and radiatively-forced change. Future evolution of decadal variability in the Pacific and Atlantic will strongly influence how wet or dry the southwest is in coming decades as a result of influence on cool season precipitation. The worst-case scenario involves a continued cold state of the tropical Pacific and the development of a warm state of the Atlantic while the best-case scenario would be a transition to a warm state of the tropical Pacific and the development of a cold state of the Atlantic. Radiatively-forced cool season precipitation reduction is strongest if future forced SST change continues the observed pattern of no warming in the equatorial Pacific cold tongue. Although this is a weaker influence on summer soil moisture than natural decadal variability, no combination of natural decadal variability and forced change ensures a return to winter precipitation or summer soil moisture levels as high as those in the final two decades of the 20th century.

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