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  1. Abstract

    The contributions of oceanic and atmospheric variability to spatially widespread summer droughts in the contiguous United States (hereafter, pan‐CONUS droughts) are investigated using 16‐member ensembles of the Community Climate Model version 3 (CCM3) forced with observed sea surface temperatures (SSTs) from 1856–2012. The employed SST forcing fields are either (i) global or restricted to the (ii) tropical Pacific or (iii) tropical Atlantic to isolate the impacts of these two ocean regions on pan‐CONUS droughts. Model results show that SST forcing of pan‐CONUS droughts originates almost entirely from the tropical Pacific because of atmospheric highs from the northern Pacific to eastern North America established by La Niña conditions, with little contribution from the tropical Atlantic. Notably, in all three model configurations, internal atmospheric variability influences pan‐CONUS drought occurrence by as much or more than the ocean forcing and can alone cause pan‐CONUS droughts by establishing a dominant high centered over the U.S. montane west. Similar results are found for the Community Atmosphere Model version 5 (CAM5). Model results are compared to the observational record, which supports model‐inferred contributions to pan‐CONUS droughts from La Niñas and internal atmospheric variability. While there may be an additional association with warm Atlantic SSTs in the observational record, this association is ambiguous due to the limited number of observed pan‐CONUS droughts. The ambiguity thus opens the possibility that the observational results are limited by sampling over the twentieth century and not at odds with the suggested dominance of Pacific Ocean forcing in the model ensembles.

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  2. From 1875 to 1878, concurrent multiyear droughts in Asia, Brazil, and Africa, referred to as the Great Drought, caused widespread crop failures, catalyzing the so-called Global Famine, which had fatalities exceeding 50 million people and long-lasting societal consequences. Observations, paleoclimate reconstructions, and climatemodel simulations are used 1) to demonstrate the severity and characterize the evolution of drought across different regions, and 2) to investigate the underlying mechanisms driving its multiyear persistence. Severe or record-setting droughts occurred on continents in both hemispheres and in multiple seasons, with the ‘‘Monsoon Asia’’ region being the hardest hit, experiencing the single most intense and the second most expansive drought in the last 800 years. The extreme severity, duration, and extent of this global event is associated with an extraordinary combination of preceding cool tropical Pacific conditions (1870–76), a record-breaking El Niño (1877–78), a record strong Indian Ocean dipole (1877), and record warm North Atlantic Ocean (1878) conditions. Composites of historical analogs and two sets of ensemble simulations—one forced with global sea surface temperatures (SSTs) and another forced with tropical Pacific SSTs—were used to distinguish the role of the extreme conditions in different ocean basins. While the drought in most regions was largely driven by the tropical Pacific SST conditions, an extreme positive phase of the Indian Ocean dipole and warm NorthAtlantic SSTs, both likely aided by the strong El Niño in 1877–78, intensified and prolonged droughts in Australia and Brazil, respectively, and extended the impact to northern and southeastern Africa. Climatic conditions that caused the Great Drought and Global Famine arose from natural variability, and their recurrence, with hydrological impacts intensified by global warming, could again potentially undermine global food security. 
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