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  1. Across western North America (WNA), 20th-21st century anthropogenic warming has increased the prevalence and severity of concurrent drought and heat events, also termed hot droughts. However, the lack of independent spatial reconstructions of both soil moisture and temperature limits the potential to identify these events in the past and to place them in a long-term context. We develop the Western North American Temperature Atlas (WNATA), a data-independent 0.5° gridded reconstruction of summer maximum temperatures back to the 16th century. Our evaluation of the WNATA with existing hydroclimate reconstructions reveals an increasing association between maximum temperature and drought severity in recent decades, relative to the past five centuries. The synthesis of these paleo-reconstructions indicates that the amplification of the modern WNA megadrought by increased temperatures and the frequency and spatial extent of compound hot and dry conditions in the 21st century are likely unprecedented since at least the 16th century.

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    Free, publicly-accessible full text available January 26, 2025
  2. Abstract

    Previous findings show that large-scale atmospheric circulation plays an important role in driving Arctic sea ice variability from synoptic to seasonal time scales. While some circulation patterns responsible for Barents–Kara sea ice changes have been identified in previous works, the most important patterns and the role of their persistence remain unclear. Our study uses self-organizing maps to identify nine high-latitude circulation patterns responsible for day-to-day Barents–Kara sea ice changes. Circulation patterns with a high pressure center over the Urals (Scandinavia) and a low pressure center over Iceland (Greenland) are found to be the most important for Barents–Kara sea ice loss. Their opposite-phase counterparts are found to be the most important for sea ice growth. The persistence of these circulation patterns helps explain sea ice variability from synoptic to seasonal time scales. We further use sea ice models forced by observed atmospheric fields (including the surface circulation and temperature) to reproduce observed sea ice variability and diagnose the role of atmosphere-driven thermodynamic and dynamic processes. Results show that thermodynamic and dynamic processes similarly contribute to Barents–Kara sea ice concentration changes on synoptic time scales via circulation. On seasonal time scales, thermodynamic processes seem to play a stronger role than dynamic processes. Overall, our study highlights the importance of large-scale atmospheric circulation, its persistence, and varying physical processes in shaping sea ice variability across multiple time scales, which has implications for seasonal sea ice prediction.

    Significance Statement

    Understanding what processes lead to Arctic sea ice changes is important due to their significant impacts on the ecosystem, weather, and shipping, and hence our society. A well-known process that causes sea ice changes is atmospheric circulation variability. We further pin down what circulation patterns and underlying mechanisms matter. We identify multiple circulation patterns responsible for sea ice loss and growth to different extents. We find that the circulation can cause sea ice loss by mechanically pushing sea ice northward and bringing warm and moist air to melt sea ice. The two processes are similarly important. Our study advances understanding of the Arctic sea ice variability with important implications for Arctic sea ice prediction.

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    Free, publicly-accessible full text available November 15, 2024
  3. Abstract

    The US Southwest is in a drought crisis that has been developing over the past two decades, contributing to marked increases in burned forest areas 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. 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. The 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 the 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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  4. Most current climate models predict that the equatorial Pacific will evolve under greenhouse gas–induced warming to a more El Niño-like state over the next several decades, with a reduced zonal sea surface temperature gradient and weakened atmospheric Walker circulation. Yet, observations over the last 50 y show the opposite trend, toward a more La Niña-like state. Recent research provides evidence that the discrepancy cannot be dismissed as due to internal variability but rather that the models are incorrectly simulating the equatorial Pacific response to greenhouse gas warming. This implies that projections of regional tropical cyclone activity may be incorrect as well, perhaps even in the direction of change, in ways that can be understood by analogy to historical El Niño and La Niña events: North Pacific tropical cyclone projections will be too active, North Atlantic ones not active enough, for example. Other perils, including severe convective storms and droughts, will also be projected erroneously. While it can be argued that these errors are transient, such that the models’ responses to greenhouse gases may be correct in equilibrium, the transient response is relevant for climate adaptation in the next several decades. Given the urgency of understanding regional patterns of climate risk in the near term, it would be desirable to develop projections that represent a broader range of possible future tropical Pacific warming scenarios—including some in which recent historical trends continue—even if such projections cannot currently be produced using existing coupled earth system models. 
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    Free, publicly-accessible full text available August 15, 2024
  5. Abstract Changes in the zonal gradients of sea surface temperature (SST) across the equatorial Pacific have major consequences for global climate. Therefore, accurate future projections of these tropical Pacific gradients are of paramount importance for climate mitigation and adaptation. Yet there is evidence of a dichotomy between observed historical gradient trends and those simulated by climate models. Observational records appear to show a “La Niña-like” strengthening of the zonal SST gradient over the past century, whereas most climate model simulations project “El Niño-like” changes toward a weaker gradient. Here, studies of these equatorial Pacific climate trends are reviewed, focusing first on data analyses and climate model simulations, then on theories that favor either enhanced or weakened zonal SST gradients, and then on notable consequences of the SST gradient trends. We conclude that the present divergence between the historical model simulations and the observed trends likely either reflects an error in the model’s forced response, or an underestimate of the multi-decadal internal variability by the models. A better understanding of the fundamental mechanisms of both forced response and natural variability is needed to reduce the uncertainty. Finally, we offer recommendations for future research directions and decision-making for climate risk mitigation. 
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  6. Abstract The Indian Ocean has an intriguing intertropical convergence zone (ITCZ) south of the equator year-round, which remains largely unexplored. Here we investigate this Indian Ocean ITCZ and the mechanisms for its origin. With a weak semiannual cycle, this ITCZ peaks in January–February with the strongest rainfall and southernmost location and a northeast–southwest orientation from the Maritime Continent to Madagascar, reaches a minimum around May with a zonal orientation, grows until its secondary maximum around September with a northwest–southeast orientation, weakens slightly until December, and then regains its mature phase in January. During austral summer, the Indian Ocean ITCZ exists over maximum surface moist static energy (MSE), consistent with convective quasi-equilibrium theory. This relationship breaks up during boreal summer when the surface MSE maximizes in the northern monsoon region. The position and orientation of the Indian Ocean ITCZ can be simulated well in both a linear dynamical model and the state-of-the-art Community Atmosphere Model version 6 (CAM6) when driven by observed sea surface temperature (SST). To quantify the contributions of the planetary boundary layer (PBL) and free-atmosphere processes to this ITCZ, we homogenize the free-atmosphere diabatic heating over the Indian Ocean in CAM6. In response, the ITCZ weakens significantly, owing to a weakened circulation and deep convection. Therefore, in CAM6, the SST drives the Indian Ocean ITCZ directly through PBL processes and indirectly via free-atmosphere diabatic heating. Their contributions are comparable during most seasons, except during the austral summer when the free-atmosphere diabatic heating dominates the mature-phase ITCZ. Significance Statement The intertropical convergence zone (ITCZ) is the globe-encircling band where trade winds converge and strong rainfall occurs in the tropics. Its rains provide life-supporting water to billions of people. Its associated latent heating invigorates the tropical atmospheric circulation and influences climate and weather across the planet. The ITCZ is located north of the equator in most tropical oceans, except in the Indian Ocean where it sits south of the equator year-around. In contrast to the well-known northern ITCZs, the origin of the southern ITCZ in the Indian Ocean remains unknown. This work provides the first explanation for how ocean surface temperature works together with processes in the lower and upper atmosphere to shape the unique ITCZ in the Indian Ocean. 
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  7. 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 climate variability and aided by natural decadal variability and human-driven climate change. 
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  8. Recent record rainfall and flood events have prompted increased attention to flood impacts on human systems. Information regarding flood effects on food security is of particular importance for humanitarian organizations and is especially valuable across Africa's rural areas that contribute to regional food supplies. We quantitatively evaluate where and to what extent flooding impacts food security across Africa, using a Granger causality analysis and panel modeling approaches. Within our modeled areas, we find that ∼12% of the people that experienced food insecurity from 2009 to 2020 had their food security status affected by flooding. Furthermore, flooding and its associated meteorological conditions can simultaneously degrade food security locally while enhancing it at regional spatial scales, leading to large variations in overall food security outcomes. Dedicated data collection at the intersection of flood events and associated food security measures across different spatial and temporal scales are required to better characterize the extent of flood impact and inform preparedness, response, and recovery needs. 
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  9. Abstract Recent record-breaking wildfire seasons in California prompt an investigation into the climate patterns that typically precede anomalous summer burned forest area. Using burned-area data from the U.S. Forest Service’s Monitoring Trends in Burn Severity (MTBS) product and climate data from the fifth major global reanalysis produced by the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ERA5) over 1984–2018, relationships between the interannual variability of antecedent climate anomalies and July California burned area are spatially and temporally characterized. Lag correlations show that antecedent high vapor pressure deficit (VPD), high temperatures, frequent extreme high temperature days, low precipitation, high subsidence, high geopotential height, low soil moisture, and low snowpack and snowmelt anomalies all correlate significantly with July California burned area as far back as the January before the fire season. Seasonal regression maps indicate that a global midlatitude atmospheric wave train in late winter is associated with anomalous July California burned area. July 2018, a year with especially high burned area, was to some extent consistent with the general patterns revealed by the regressions: low winter precipitation and high spring VPD preceded the extreme burned area. However, geopotential height anomaly patterns were distinct from those in the regressions. Extreme July heat likely contributed to the extent of the fires ignited that month, even though extreme July temperatures do not historically significantly correlate with July burned area. While the 2018 antecedent climate conditions were typical of a high-burned-area year, they were not extreme, demonstrating the likely limits of statistical prediction of extreme fire seasons and the need for individual case studies of extreme years. Significance Statement The purpose of this study is to identify the local and global climate patterns in the preceding seasons that influence how the burned summer forest area in California varies year-to-year. We find that a dry atmosphere, high temperatures, dry soils, less snowpack, low precipitation, subsiding air, and high pressure centered west of California all correlate significantly with large summer burned area as far back as the preceding January. These climate anomalies occur as part of a hemispheric scale pattern with weak connections to the tropical Pacific Ocean. We also describe the climate anomalies preceding the extreme and record-breaking burned-area year of 2018, and how these compared with the more general patterns found. These results give important insight into how well and how early it might be possible to predict the severity of an upcoming summer wildfire season in California. 
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