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Climate Change Amplification of Natural Drought Variability: The Historic Mid-Twentieth-Century North American Drought in a Warmer World

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AbstractIn the mid-twentieth century (1948–57), North America experienced a severe drought forced by cold tropical Pacific sea surface temperatures (SSTs). If these SSTs recurred, it would likely cause another drought, but in a world substantially warmer than the one in which the original event took place. We use a 20-member ensemble of the GISS climate model to investigate the drought impacts of a repetition of the mid-twentieth-century SST anomalies in a significantly warmer world. Using observed SSTs and mid-twentieth-century forcings (Hist-DRGHT), the ensemble reproduces the observed precipitation deficits during the cold season (October–March) across the Southwest, southern plains, and Mexico and during the warm season (April–September) in the southern plains and the Southeast. Under analogous SST forcing and enhanced warming (Fut-DRGHT, ≈3 K above preindustrial), cold season precipitation deficits are ameliorated in the Southwest and southern plains and intensified in the Southeast, whereas during the warm season precipitation deficits are enhanced across North America. This occurs primarily from greenhouse gas–forced trends in mean precipitation, rather than changes in SST teleconnections. Cold season runoff deficits in Fut-DRGHT are significantly amplified over the Southeast, but otherwise similar to Hist-DRGHT over the Southwest and southern plains. In the warm season, however, runoff and soil moisture deficits during Fut-DRGHT are significantly amplified across the southern United States, a consequence of enhanced precipitation deficits and increased evaporative losses due to warming. Our study highlights how internal variability and greenhouse gas–forced trends in hydroclimate are likely to interact over North America, including how changes in both precipitation and evaporative demand will affect future drought.

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