Linking Southwest U.S. Drought to the Hiatus in Global Warming

Wednesday, 17 December 2014: 2:12 PM
Martin P Hoerling, NOAA Boulder, ESRL, Boulder, CO, United States; NOAA, ESRL, Boulder, CO, United States, Xiao-Wei Quan, NOAA, Boulder, CO, United States and Ben Livneh, Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, Boulder, CO, United States
Weather and climate of the new millennium has been unkind to the Southwest United States. Precipitation has been deficient, especially compared to prior decades of the late 20thCentury. Temperatures have been consistently above historical averages. And drought conditions have prevailed for a period now stretching 15 years in duration. Impacts of these dry and warm conditions have included compromised health of forests and ecosystems, more wildfires, reduced water resources most notably the declining elevations of Lake Mead and Powell and substantially diminished annual flows in the Colorado River.

The question remains open concerning the extent to which this protracted drought episode is strongly a symptom of human induced climate change. While the prolonged drought, including its recent regional expression over California, has been unusually severe relative to droughts of the 20thCentury, some droughts in the paleoclimate record were more severe. To be sure, various studies have detected the consequences of warming temperatures on the hydrologic cycle over the greater western United States, but the drought’s severity has principally resulted from deficient rains, the cause for which has yet to been determined.

Here we present results from analysis of historical climate simulations to determine the factors contributing to a protracted reduction in Southwest regional precipitation. A parallel set of 2000 year-long equilibrium coupled ocean-atmosphere experiments, one subjected to late 19th Century radiative forcing and a second subjected to early 21st Century radiative forcing, is used to explore attributable impacts of long-term anthropogenic climate change. Historical atmospheric climate simulations are also used to address the effects of the specific observed evolution of sea surface temperatures. These are characterized by appreciable natural variations, one feature of which has been a cooling in the tropical east Pacific during the last 15 years related to the hiatus. Results are presented that demonstrate a strong link of the Southwest drought to this hiatus condition of the world oceans, and intercomparison with the equilibrium experiments permits us to disentangle that factor from impacts of long term global warming.