The 1960s Drought and the Subsequent Shift to a Wetter Climate in the Catskill Mountains Region of the New York City Watershed

Seager, Richard; Kushnir, Yochanan; Pederson, Neil; Nakamura, Jennifer A.; Jurburg, Stephanie Denisse

The precipitation history over the last century in the Catskill Mountains region that supplies water to New York City is studied. A severe drought occurred in the early to mid-1960s followed by a wet period that continues. Interannual variability of precipitation in the region is related to patterns of atmospheric circulation variability in the midlatitude east Pacific–North America–west Atlantic sector with no link to the tropics. Associated SST variations in the Atlantic are consistent with being forced by the anomalous atmospheric flow rather than being causal. In winter and spring the 1960s drought was associated with a low pressure anomaly over the midlatitude North Atlantic Ocean and northerly subsiding flow over the greater Catskills region that would likely suppress precipitation. The cold SSTs offshore during the drought are consistent with atmospheric forcing of the ocean. The subsequent wet period was associated with high pressure anomalies over the Atlantic Ocean and ascending southerly flow over eastern North America favoring increased precipitation and a strengthening of the Northern Hemisphere storm track. Neither the drought nor the subsequent pluvial are simulated in sea surface temperature–forced atmosphere GCMs. The long-term wetting is also not simulated as a response to changes in radiative forcing by coupled models. It is concluded that past precipitation variability in the region, including the drought and pluvial, were most likely caused by internal atmospheric variability. Such events are unpredictable and a drought like the 1960s one could return while the long-term wetting trend need not continue—conclusions that have implications for management of New York City’s water resources.



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Journal of Climate

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