skip to main content

Title: Dynamics and Variability of the Spring Dry Season in the United States Southwest as Observed in AmeriFlux and NLDAS-2 Data

The spring dry season occurring in an arid region of the southwestern United States, which receives both winter storm track and summer monsoon precipitation, is investigated. Bimodal precipitation and vegetation growth provide an opportunity to assess multiple climate mechanisms and their impact on hydroclimate and ecosystems. We detect multiple shifts from wet to drier conditions in the observational record and land surface model output. Focusing on the recent dry period, a shift in the late 1990s resulted in earlier and greater spring soil moisture draw down, and later and reduced spring vegetation green-up, compared to a prior wet period (1979–97). A simple soil moisture balance model shows this shift is driven by changes in winter precipitation. The recent post-1999 dry period and an earlier one from 1948 to 1966 are both related to the cool tropics phase of Pacific decadal variability, which influences winter precipitation. In agreement with other studies for the southwestern United States, we find the recent drought cannot be explained in terms of precipitation alone, but also is due to the rising influence of temperature, thus highlighting the sensitivity of this region to warming temperatures. Future changes in the spring dry season will therefore be affected by more » how tropical decadal variability evolves, and also by emerging trends due to human-driven warming.

« less
 ;  ;  ;  ;  
Publication Date:
Journal Name:
Journal of Hydrometeorology
Page Range or eLocation-ID:
p. 1081-1102
American Meteorological Society
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
More Like this
  1. Abstract By summer 2021 moderate to exceptional drought impacted 28% of North America, focused west of the Mississippi, with serious impacts on fire, water resources, and agriculture. Here, using reanalyses and SST-forced climate models, we examine the onset and development of this southwestern drought from its inception in summer 2020 through winter and spring 2020/21. The drought severity in summer 2021 resulted from four consecutive prior seasons in which precipitation in the southwest United States was the lowest on record or, at least, extremely dry. The dry conditions in summer 2020 arose from internal atmospheric variability but are beyond the range of what the studied atmosphere models simulate for that season. From winter 2020 through spring 2021 the worsening drought conditions were guided by the development of a La Niña in the tropical Pacific Ocean. Decadal variability in the Pacific Ocean aided drought in the southern part of the region by driving the cool season to be drier during the last two decades. There is also evidence that the southern part of the region in spring is drying due to human-driven climate change. In sum the drought onset was driven by a combination of internal atmospheric variability and interannual climatemore »variability and aided by natural decadal variability and human-driven climate change.« less
  2. null (Ed.)
    Abstract. Despite clear signals of regional impacts of the recent severe drought inCalifornia, e.g., within Californian Central Valley groundwater storage and Sierra Nevada forests, our understanding of how this drought affected soil moisture and vegetation responses in lowland grasslands is limited. In order to better understand the resulting vulnerability of these landscapes to fire and ecosystem degradation, we aimed to generalize drought-induced changes in subsurface soil moisture and to explore its effects within grassland ecosystems of Southern California. We used a high-resolution in situ dataset of climate and soil moisture from two grassland sites (coastal and inland), alongside greenness (Normalized Difference Vegetation Index) data from Landsat imagery, to explore drought dynamics in environments with similar precipitation but contrasting evaporative demand over the period 2008–2019. We show that negative impacts of prolonged precipitation deficits on vegetation at the coastal site were buffered by fog and moderate temperatures. During the drought, the Santa Barbara region experienced an early onset of the dry season in mid-March instead of April, resulting in premature senescence of grasses by mid-April. We developed a parsimonious soil moisture balance model that captures dynamic vegetation–evapotranspiration feedbacks and analyzed the links between climate, soil moisture, and vegetation greenness over several years ofmore »simulated drought conditions, exploring the impacts of plausible climate change scenarios that reflect changes to precipitation amounts, their seasonal distribution, and evaporative demand. The redistribution of precipitation over a shortened rainy season highlighted a strong coupling of evapotranspiration to incoming precipitation at the coastal site, while the lower water-holding capacity of soils at the inland site resulted in additional drainage occurring under this scenario. The loss of spring rains due to a shortening of the rainy season also revealed a greater impact on the inland site, suggesting less resilience to low moisture at a time when plant development is about to start. The results also suggest that the coastal site would suffer disproportionally from extended dry periods, effectively driving these areas into more extreme drought than previously seen. These sensitivities suggest potential future increases in the risk of wildfires under climate change, as well as increased grassland ecosystem vulnerability.« less
  3. Modern forest management generally relies on thinning treatments to reduce fuels and mitigate the threat of catastrophic wildfire. They have also been proposed as a tool to augment downstream flows by reducing evapotranspiration. Warming climates are causing many forests to transition from snow-dominated to rain-dominated precipitation regimes—in which water stores are depleted earlier in the summer. However, there are relatively few studies of these systems that directly measure the hydrologic impacts of such treatments during and following snow-free winters. This work compares the below-canopy meteorological and subsurface hydrologic differences between two thinning prescriptions and an unaltered Control during periods of extreme drought and near-record precipitation (with little snow). The field site was within a coniferous forest in the rain-snow transition zone of the southern Cascades, near the Sierra Nevada Range of California. Both thinning-prescriptions had a modest and predictable impact on below-canopy meteorology, which included their causing lower nighttime minimum temperatures in the critical summer months and higher wind speeds. Relative to the Control, both treatments affected soil moisture storage by delaying its annual decline and increasing its minimum value by the end of the season. The onset of soil moisture depletion was strongly tied to the magnitude of wintermore »precipitation. In dry years, it began much earlier within the dense Control stand than in the treated ones, and, without snow, soil moisture was not replenished in the late spring. During high precipitation years, the storage capacity was topped off for all three stands, which resulted in similar timing of moisture decline across them, later in the season. The two thinning prescriptions increased stores through the height of summer (in wet and drought years). Finally, the basal area increment (BAI) of the remaining trees rose in both, suggesting they used the excess moisture to support rapid growth.« less
  4. Using observations and reanalysis, we develop a robust statistical approach based on canonical correlation analysis (CCA) to explore the leading drivers of decadal and longer-term Mediterranean hydroclimate variability during the historical, half-year wet season. Accordingly, a series of CCA analyses are conducted with combined, multi-component large-scale drivers of Mediterranean precipitation and surface air temperatures. The results highlight the decadal-scale North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) as the leading driver of hydroclimate variations across the Mediterranean basin. Markedly, the decadal variability of Atlantic-Mediterranean sea surface temperatures (SST), whose influence on the Mediterranean climate has so far been proposed as limited to the summer months, is found to enhance the NAO-induced hydroclimate response during the winter half-year season. As for the long-term, century scale trends, anthropogenic forcing, expressed in terms of the global SST warming (GW) signal, is robustly associated with basin-wide increase in surface air temperatures. Our analyses provide more detailed information than has heretofore been presented on the sub-seasonal evolution and spatial dependence of the large-scale climate variability in the Mediterranean region, separating the effects of natural variability and anthropogenic forcing, with the latter linked to a long-term drying of the region due to GW-induced local poleward shift of the subtropical drymore »zone. The physical understanding of these mechanisms is essential in order to improve model simulations and predic- tion of the decadal and longer hydroclimatic evolution in the Mediterranean area, which can help in developing adaptation strategies to mitigate the effect of climate variability and change on the vulnerable regional population.« less
  5. Abstract

    Instrumental records indicate a century-long trend towards drying over western North America and wetting over eastern North America. A continuation of these trends into the future would have significant hydroclimatic and socioeconomic consequences in both the semi-arid Southwest and humid East. Using tree-ring reconstructions and hydrologic simulations of summer soil moisture, we evaluate and contextualize the modern summer aridity gradient within its natural range of variability established over the past 600 years and evaluate the effects of observed and anthropogenic precipitation, temperature, and humidity trends. The 2001–2020 positive (wet east-dry west) aridity gradient was larger than any 20 year period since 1400 CE, preceded by the most negative (wet west-dry east) aridity gradient during 1976–1995, leading to a strong multi-decade reversal in aridity gradient anomalies that was rivaled only by a similar event in the late-16th century. The 2001–2020 aridity gradient was dominated by long-term summer precipitation increases in the Midwest and Northeast, with smaller contributions from more warming in the West than the East and spring precipitation decreases in the Southwest. Multi-model mean climate simulations from Coupled Model Intercomparison Project 6 experiments suggest anthropogenic climate trends should not have strongly affected the aridity gradient thus far. However, theremore »is high uncertainty due to inter-model disagreement on anthropogenic precipitation trends. The recent strengthening of the observed aridity gradient, its increasing dependence on precipitation variability, and disagreement in modeled anthropogenic precipitation trends reveal significant uncertainties in how water resource availability will change across North America in the coming decades.

    « less