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Comparing Twentieth- and Twenty-First-Century Patterns of Interannual Precipitation Variability over the Western United States and Northern Mexico

Ruff, Tyler W.; Kushnir, Yochanan; Seager, Richard

The ability of coupled climate models to simulate the patterns of interannual precipitation variability over the western half of the United States and northern Mexico is investigated by applying principal component analysis to observations and model output. Global Precipitation Climatology Centre (GPCC) observations are compared to the pooled twentieth-century warm- and cold-season precipitation averages simulated by five coupled global climate models included in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fourth Assessment Report. The pooled model spatial structures (EOFs) closely match those of the GPCC observations for both halves of the year. Additionally, the twenty-first-century model pooled EOFs are almost identical in spatial extent and amplitude to their twentieth-century counterparts. Thus, the spatial characteristics of large-scale precipitation variability in the western United States are not projected to change in the twenty-first century. When global observed and modeled seasonally averaged sea surface temperature anomalies are correlated with the time series corresponding to the three leading EOFs to discern sources of each mode of precipitation variability, a pattern reminiscent of El Niño is found to be the only significant association. The spatial structures of variability also appear independent of the model-predicted precipitation trend over the twenty-first century, indicating that the mechanisms responsible for the trend are different from those associated with interannual variability. The results of this study lend confidence in the pooled model predictions of seasonal precipitation patterns, and they suggest that future changes will primarily result from the contribution of the mean trend over which statistically stationary interannual variability is superimposed.

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Also Published In

Journal of Hydrometeorology

More About This Work

Academic Units
Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory
Ocean and Climate Physics
Published Here
March 5, 2012