Are Simulated Megadroughts in the North American Southwest Forced?

Coats, Sloan John; Smerdon, Jason E.; Cook, Benjamin I.; Seager, Richard

Multidecadal drought periods in the North American Southwest (25°–42.5°N, 125°–105°W), so-called megadroughts, are a prominent feature of the paleoclimate record over the last millennium (LM). Six forced transient simulations of the LM along with corresponding historical (1850–2005) and 500-yr preindustrial control runs from phase 5 of the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP5) are analyzed to determine if atmosphere–ocean general circulation models (AOGCMs) are able to simulate droughts that are similar in persistence and severity to the megadroughts in the proxy-derived North American Drought Atlas. Megadroughts are found in each of the AOGCM simulations of the LM, although there are intermodel differences in the number, persistence, and severity of these features. Despite these differences, a common feature of the simulated megadroughts is that they are not forced by changes in the exogenous forcing conditions. Furthermore, only the Community Climate System Model (CCSM), version 4, simulation contains megadroughts that are consistently forced by cooler conditions in the tropical Pacific Ocean. These La Niña–like mean states are not accompanied by changes to the interannual variability of the El Niño–Southern Oscillation system and result from internal multidecadal variability of the tropical Pacific mean state, of which the CCSM has the largest magnitude of the analyzed simulations. Critically, the CCSM is also found to have a realistic teleconnection between the tropical Pacific and North America that is stationary on multidecadal time scales. Generally, models with some combination of a realistic and stationary teleconnection and large multidecadal variability in the tropical Pacific are found to have the highest incidence of megadroughts driven by the tropical Pacific boundary conditions.

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Also Published In

Journal of Climate

More About This Work

Academic Units
Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory
Earth and Environmental Sciences
Ocean and Climate Physics
Biology and Paleo Environment
American Meteorological Society
Published Here
September 29, 2015