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Circulation and Soil Moisture Contributions to United States Heatwaves


Extreme heat events are a threat to human health, productivity and food supply, so understanding their drivers is critical to adaptation and resilience. Anticyclonic circulation and certain quasi-stationary Rossby wave patterns are well-known to coincide with heatwaves, and soil moisture deficits amplify extreme heat in some regions. However, the relative roles of these two factors in causing heatwaves is still unclear. Here we use constructed circulation analogs to estimate the contribution of atmospheric circulation to United States heatwaves in the Community Earth System Model version 1 (CESM1) preindustrial control simulations. After accounting for the component of the heatwaves explained by circulation, we explore the relationship between the residual temperature anomalies and soil moisture. We find that circulation explains over 85% of heatwave temperature anomalies in the eastern and western US, but only 70-80% in the central US. In this region, there is a significant negative correlation between soil moisture the week before the heatwave and the strength of the heatwave that explains additional variance. Further, for the hottest central US heatwaves, positive temperature anomalies and negative soil moisture anomalies are evident over a month before heatwave onset. These results provide evidence that positive land-atmosphere feedbacks may be amplifying heatwaves in the central US and demonstrate the geographic heterogeneity in the relative importance of the land and atmosphere for heatwave development. Analysis of future circulation and soil moisture in the CESM1 Large Ensemble indicates that over parts of the US, both may be trending towards greater heatwave likelihood.

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