, Volume 41, Issue 3-4, pp 633-646

The influence of the inter-decadal Pacific oscillation on US precipitation during 1923–2010

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Abstract

Precipitation over the contiguous United States exhibits large multi-decadal oscillations since the early twentieth century, and they often lead to dry (e.g., 1946–1976 and 1999-present) and wet (e.g., 1977–1998) periods and apparent precipitation trends (e.g., from the 1950s to 1990s) over most of the western and central US. The exact cause of these inter-decadal variations is not fully understood. Using observational and reanalysis data and model simulations, this paper examines the influence of the Inter-decadal Pacific Oscillation (IPO) on US precipitation. The IPO is a leading mode of sea surface temperatures (SSTs) seen mostly in the Pacific Ocean. It is found that decadal precipitation variations over much of the West and Central US, especially the Southwest, closely follow the evolution of the IPO (r = 0.85 during 1923–2010 for the Southwest US), and the dry and wet periods are associated, respectively, with the cold and warm phases of the IPO. In particular, the apparent upward trend from the 1950s–1990s and the dry decade thereafter in precipitation over much of the West and Central US are largely caused by the IPO cycles, which switched to a warm phase around 1977 and back to a cold phase around 1999. An atmospheric model forced with observed SSTs reproduces much of this association of US precipitation with the IPO (r = 0.95 between smoothed observed and simulated Southwest US precipitation during 1950–2009 and r = 0.88 between the simulated Southwest US precipitation and the IPO). Atmospheric reanalysis and model data both show a strong high (low) pressure center and anti-cyclonic (cyclonic) anomaly circulation over the North Pacific in the lower troposphere during cold (warm) phases of the IPO, which lead to dry and cold northwesterly and northerly winds and below-normal precipitation over much of the West US during IPO cold periods. The IPO induced changes are most pronounced during the boreal cold season. The results reinforce the notion that tropical Pacific SSTs (and the accompanying SST anomalies in the North Pacific) have large impacts on US precipitation and highlight the need to understand and simulate the IPO for decadal prediction of US precipitation.

The National Center for Atmospheric Research is sponsored by the US National Science Foundation.