An Unexpected Decline in Spring Atmospheric Humidity in the Interior Southwestern United States and Implications for Forest Fires

Jacobson, Tess W. P.; Seager, Richard; Williams, A. Park; Simpson, Isla R.; McKinnon, Karen A.; Liu, Haibo

On seasonal time scales, vapor pressure deficit (VPD) is a known predictor of burned area in the southwest- ern United States (“the Southwest”). VPD increases with atmospheric warming due to the exponential relationship be- tween temperature and saturation vapor pressure. Another control on VPD is specific humidity, such that increases in specific humidity can counteract temperature-driven increases in VPD. Unexpectedly, despite the increased capacity of a warmer atmosphere to hold water vapor, near-surface specific humidity decreased from 1970 to 2019 in much of the South- west, particularly in spring, summer, and fall. Here, we identify declining near-surface humidity from 1970 to 2019 in the southwestern United States with both reanalysis and in situ station data. Focusing on the interior Southwest in the months preceding the summer forest fire season, we explain the decline in terms of changes in atmospheric circulation and mois- ture fluxes between the surface and the atmosphere. We find that an early spring decline in precipitation in the interior re- gion induced a decline in soil moisture and evapotranspiration, drying the lower troposphere in summer. This prior season precipitation decline is in turn related to a trend toward a Northern Hemisphere stationary wave pattern. Finally, using fixed humidity scenarios and the observed exponential relationship between VPD and burned forest area, we estimate that with no increase in temperature at all, the humidity decline alone would still lead to nearly one-quarter of the observed VPD-induced increase in burned area over 1984–2019.


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