Distinguishing pronounced droughts in the southwestern united states: Seasonality and effects of warmer temperatures

Jeremy L. Weiss, Christopher L. Castro, Jonathan T. Overpeck

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136 Scopus citations


Higher temperatures increase the moisture-holding capacity of the atmosphere and can lead to greater atmospheric demand for evapotranspiration, especially during warmer seasons of the year. Increases in precipitation or atmospheric humidity ameliorate this enhanced demand, whereas decreases exacerbate it. In the southwestern United States (Southwest), this means the greatest changes in evapotranspirational demand resulting from higher temperatures could occur during the hot-dry foresummer and hot-wet monsoon. Here seasonal differences in surface climate observations are examined to determine how temperature and moisture conditions affected evapotranspirational demand during the pronounced Southwest droughts of the 1950s and 2000s, the latter likely influenced by warmer temperatures now attributed mostly to the buildup of greenhouse gases. In the hot-dry foresummer during the 2000s drought, much of the Southwest experienced significantly warmer temperatures that largely drove greater evapotranspirational demand. Lower atmospheric humidity at this time of year over parts of the region also allowed evapotranspirational demand to increase. Significantly warmer temperatures in the hot-wet monsoon during the more recent drought also primarily drove greater evapotranspirational demand, but only for parts of the region outside of the core North American monsoon area. Had atmospheric humidity during the more recent drought been as low as during the 1950s drought in the core North American monsoon area at this time of year, greater evapotranspirational demand during the 2000s drought could have been more spatially extensive. With projections of future climate indicating continued warming in the region, evapotranspirational demand during the hot-dry and hot-wet seasons possibly will be more severe in future droughts and result in more extreme conditions in the Southwest, a disproportionate amount negatively impacting society.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)5918-5932
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Climate
Issue number22
StatePublished - Nov 2009

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Atmospheric Science


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