Forced and unforced variability of twentieth century North American droughts and pluvials

Benjamin I. Cook, Edward R. Cook, Kevin J. Anchukaitis, Richard Seager, Ron L. Miller

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

46 Scopus citations


Research on the forcing of drought and pluvial events over North America is dominated by general circulation model experiments that often have operational limitations (e.g., computational expense, ability to simulate relevant processes, etc). We use a statistically based modeling approach to investigate sea surface temperature (SST) forcing of the twentieth century pluvial (1905-1917) and drought (1932-1939, 1948-1957, 1998-2002) events. A principal component (PC) analysis of Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI) from the North American Drought Atlas separates the drought variability into five leading modes accounting for 62% of the underlying variance. Over the full period spanning these events (1900-2005), the first three PCs significantly correlate with SSTs in the equatorial Pacific (PC 1), North Pacific (PC 2), and North Atlantic (PC 3), with spatial patterns (as defined by the empirical orthogonal functions) consistent with our understanding of North American drought responses to SST forcing. We use a large ensemble statistical modeling approach to determine how successfully we can reproduce these drought/pluvial events using these three modes of variability. Using Pacific forcing only (PCs 1-2), we are able to reproduce the 1948-1957 drought and 1905-1917 pluvial above a 95% random noise threshold in over 90% of the ensemble members; the addition of Atlantic forcing (PCs 1-2-3) provides only marginal improvement. For the 1998-2002 drought, Pacific forcing reproduces the drought above noise in over 65% of the ensemble members, with the addition of Atlantic forcing increasing the number passing to over 80%. The severity of the drought, however, is underestimated in the ensemble median, suggesting this drought intensity can only be achieved through internal variability or other processes. Pacific only forcing does a poor job of reproducing the 1932-1939 drought pattern in the ensemble median, and less than one third of ensemble members exceed the noise threshold (28%). Inclusion of Atlantic forcing improves the ensemble median drought pattern and nearly doubles the number of ensemble members passing the noise threshold (52%). Even with the inclusion of Atlantic forcing, the intensity of the simulated 1932-1939 drought is muted, and the drought itself extends too far into the southwest and southern Great Plains. To an even greater extent than the 1998-2002 drought, these results suggest much of the variance in the 1932-1939 drought is dependent on processes other than SST forcing. This study highlights the importance of internal noise and non SST processes for hydroclimatic variability over North America, complementing existing research using general circulation models.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1097-1110
Number of pages14
JournalClimate Dynamics
Issue number5
StatePublished - Sep 2011
Externally publishedYes


  • Drought
  • Dust Bowl
  • Forcing
  • North America
  • Predictability

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Atmospheric Science


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