The continuum of drought in southwestern North America

Luke A. Parsons, Sloan Coats, Jonathan T. Overpeck

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


Drought has severe consequences for humans and their environment, yet we have a limited understanding of the drivers of drought across the full range of time scales on which it occurs. Here, the atmosphere and ocean conditions that drive this continuum of drought variability in southwestern North America (SWNA) are studied using the latest observationally based products, paleoclimate reconstructions, and state-of-the-art Earth system model simulations of the last millennium. A novel application of the self-organizing maps (SOM) methodology allows for a visualization of the continuum of climate states coinciding with thousands of droughts of varying lengths in last millennium simulations from the Community Earth System Model (CESM), the Goddard Institute for Space Studies Model E2-R (GISS E2-R), and eight other members from phase 5 of the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP5). It is found that most droughts are associated with a cool Pacific decadal oscillation (PDO) pattern, but persistent droughts can coincide with a variety of ocean-atmosphere states, including time periods showing a warm PDO or weak ocean-atmosphere anomalies. Many CMIP5 models simulate similar SWNA teleconnection patterns, but the SOM analysis demonstrates that models simulate different continuums of ocean-atmosphere states coinciding with droughts of different lengths, suggesting fundamental differences in their drought dynamics. These findings have important implications for our understanding and simulation of the drivers of persistent drought, and for their potential predictability.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)8627-8643
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Climate
Issue number20
StatePublished - Oct 1 2018


  • Atmosphere-ocean interaction
  • Climate variability
  • Drought
  • Ensembles
  • General circulation models
  • Paleoclimate

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Atmospheric Science


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