Climate Dynamics

, Volume 36, Issue 11–12, pp 2339–2355 | Cite as

Atmospheric circulation anomalies during two persistent north american droughts: 1932–1939 and 1948–1957

  • Benjamin I. CookEmail author
  • Richard Seager
  • Ron L. Miller


We use an early twentieth century (1908–1958) atmospheric reanalysis, based on assimilation of surface and sea level pressure observations, to contrast atmospheric circulation during two periods of persistent drought in North America: 1932–1939 (the ‘Dust Bowl’) and 1948–1957. Primary forcing for both droughts is believed to come from anomalous sea surface temperatures (SSTs): a warm Atlantic and a cool eastern tropical Pacific. For boreal winter (October–March) in the 1950s, a stationary wave pattern originating from the tropical Pacific is present, with positive centers over the north Pacific and north Atlantic ocean basins and a negative center positioned over northwest North America and the tropical/subtropical Pacific. This wave train is largely absent for the 1930s drought; boreal winter height anomalies are organized much more zonally, with positive heights extending across northern North America. For boreal summer (April–September) during the 1930s, a strong upper level ridge is centered over the Great Plains; this feature is absent during the 1950s and appears to be linked to a weakening of the Great Plains low-level jet (GPLLJ). Subsidence anomalies are co-located over the centers of each drought: in the central Great Plains for the 1930s and in a band extending from the southwest to the southeastern United States for the 1950s. The location and intensity of this subsidence during the 1948–1957 drought is a typical response to a cold eastern tropical Pacific, but for 1932–1939 deviates in terms of the expected intensity, location, and spatial extent. Overall, circulation anomalies during the 1950s drought appear consistent with the expected response to the observed SST forcing. This is not the case for the 1930s, implying some other causal factor may be needed to explain the Dust Bowl drought anomalies. In addition to SST forcing, the 1930s were also characterized by massive alterations to the land surface, including regional-scale devegetation from crop failures and intensive wind erosion and dust storms. Incorporation of these land surface factors into a general circulation model greatly improves the simulation of precipitation and subsidence anomalies during this drought, relative to simulations with SST forcing alone. Even with additional forcing from the land surface, however, the model still has difficulty reproducing some of the other circulation anomalies, including weakening of the GPLLJ and strengthening of the upper level ridge during AMJJAS. This may be due to either weaknesses in the model or uncertainties in the boundary condition estimates. Still, analysis of the circulation anomalies supports the conclusion of an earlier paper (Cook et al. in Proc Natl Acad Sci 106:4997, 2009), demonstrating that land degradation factors are consistent with the anomalous nature of the Dust Bowl drought.


Drought Dynamics Dust Bowl Great Plains 



Twentieth century reanalysis data provided by the NOAA/OAR/ESRL PSD, Boulder, Colorado, USA, from their Web site at This project received support from the Climate Dynamics Program of the National Science Foundation under ATM-06-20066. The authors also wish to thank two anonymous reviewers who greatly improved the quality of this manuscript. Lamont contribution number 7341.


  1. Arritt R, Rink T, Segal M, Todey D, Clark C, Mitchell M, Labas K, (1997) The Great Plains low-level jet during the warm season of 1993. Mon Weather Rev 125:2176–2192CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Brönnimann S, Stickler A, Griesser T, Ewen T, Grant A, Fischer A, Schraner M, Peter T, Rozanov E, Ross T (2009) Exceptional atmospheric circulation during the “Dust Bowl”. Geophys Res Lett 36:L08802CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Charney J (1975) Dynamics of deserts and drought in the Sahel. Q J R Meteorol Soc 101:193–202CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Compo G, Whitaker J, Sardeshmukh P (2006) Feasibility of a 100-year reanalysis using only surface pressure data. Bull Am Meteorol Soc 87:175–190CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Cook B, Miller R, Seager R (2008) Dust and sea surface temperature forcing of the 1930s “Dust Bowl” drought. Geophys Res Lett 35:L08710CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Cook B, Miller R, Seager R (2009) Amplification of the North American “Dust Bowl” drought through human-induced land degradation. Proc Natl Acad Sci 106:4997CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Cook E, Woodhouse C, Eakin C, Meko D, Stahle D (2004) Long-term aridity changes in the Western United States. Science 306:1015–1018CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Enfield D, Mayer D (1997) Tropical Atlantic sea surface temperature variability and its relation to El Niño-Southern Oscillation. J Geophys Res 102:929–945 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Enfield D, Mestas-Nunez A, Trimble P (2001) The Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation and its relationship to rainfall and river flows in the Continental US. Geophys Res Lett 28:2077–2080CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Fye F, Stahle D, Cook E (2003) Paleoclimatic analogs to twentieth-century moisture regimes across the United States. Bull Am Meteorol Soc 84:901–909CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Griesser T, Bronnimann S, Grant A, Ewen T, Stickler A, Zurich E (2008) Reconstruction of upper-level temperature and geopotential height fields for the northern extratropics back to 1920. Technical report, ETH Zurich.
  12. Hansen J, Sato M, Ruedy R, Kharecha, Lacis A, Miller R, Nazarenko L, Lo K, Schmidt G, Russell G, et al (2007) Climate simulations for 1880–2003 with GISS modelE. Clim Dyn 29:661–696CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Hansen Z, Libecap G (2004) Small farms, externalities, and the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. J Political Econ 112:665–694CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Herweijer C, Seager R, Cook E (2006) North American droughts of the mid to late nineteenth century: a history, simulation and implication for Mediaeval drought. Holocene 16:159CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Herweijer C, Seager R, Cook E, Emile-Geay J (2007) North American droughts of the last Millennium from a gridded network of tree-ring data. J Clim 20:1353–1376CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Higgins R, Yao Y, Yarosh E, Janowiak J, Mo K (1997) Influence of the Great Plains low-level jet on summertime precipitation and moisture transport over the central United States. J Clim 10:481–507CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Hoerling M, Kumar A (2003) The perfect ocean for drought. Science 299:691CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Hoerling M, Quan X, Eischeid J, (2009) Distinct causes for two principal US droughts of the 20th century. Geophys Res Lett 36:L19708CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Kalnay E, Kanamitsu M, Kistler R, Collins W, Deaven D, Gandin L, Iredell M, Saha S, White G, Woollen J, et al (1996) The NCEP/NCAR 40-year reanalysis project. Bull Am Meteorol Soc 77:437–471CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Keenlyside N, Latif M, Jungclaus J, Kornblueh L, Roeckner E (2008) Advancing decadal-scale climate prediction in the North Atlantic sector. Nature 453:84–88CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Koven C (2006) On the sources, composition, and climatic effects of mineral dust in the atmosphere. Ph.D. thesis, University of California, Berkeley.Google Scholar
  22. Kushnir Y, Seager R, Ting M, Naik N, Nakamura J (2010) Mechanisms of Tropical Atlantic SST influence on North American hydroclimate variability. J ClimGoogle Scholar
  23. Mantua N, Hare S (2002) The Pacific decadal oscillation. J Oceanogr 58:35–44CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Mantua N, Hare S, Zhang Y, Wallace J, Francis R (1997) A Pacific interdecadal climate oscillation with impacts on Salmon production. Bull Am Meteorol Soc 78:1069–1079CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. McCabe G, Betancourt J, Gray S, Palecki M, Hidalgo H (2008) Associations of multi-decadal sea-surface temperature variability with US drought. Quat Int 188:31–40CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. McCabe G, Palecki M, Betancourt J (2004) Pacific and Atlantic Ocean influences on multidecadal drought frequency in the United States. Proc Natl Acad Sci 101:4136–4141CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Miller R, Cakmur R, Perlwitz J, Geogdzhayev I, Ginoux P, Kohfeld K, Koch D, Prigent C, Ruedy R, Schmidt G, et al (2006) Mineral dust aerosols in the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Sciences ModelE atmospheric general circulation model. J Geophys Res 111:D06208CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Mitchell T, Jones P (2005) An improved method of constructing a database of monthly climate observations and associated high-resolution grids. Int J Climatol 25:693–712CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Mo K, Paegle J, Higgins R (1997) Atmospheric processes associated with summer floods and droughts in the central United States. J Clim 10:3028–3046CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Nigam S, Ruiz-Barradas A (2006) Seasonal hydroclimate variability over North America in global and regional reanalyses and AMIP Simulations: a mixed assessment. J Clim 19:815–837CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Rayner N, Parker D, Horton E, Folland C, Alexander L, Rowell D, Kent E, Kaplan A (2003) Global analyses of sea surface temperature, sea ice, and night marine air temperature since the late nineteenth century. J Geophys Res 108:4407CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Saha S, Nadiga S, Thiaw C, Wang J, Wang W, Zhang Q, Van den Dool H, Pan H, Moorthi S, Behringer D, et al (2006) The NCEP climate forecast system. J Clim 19:3483–3517CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Schmidt G, Ruedy R, Hansen J, Aleinov I, Bell N, Bauer M, Bauer S, Cairns B, Canuto V, Cheng Y, et al. (2006) Present-day atmospheric simulations using GISS ModelE: comparison to in situ, satellite, and reanalysis data. J Clim 19:153–192CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Schubert S, Gutzler D, Wang H, Dai A, Delworth T, Deser C, Findell K, Fu R, Higgins W, Hoerling M, et al (2009) A US CLIVAR project to assess and compare the responses of global climate models to drought-related SST forcing patterns: overview and results. J Clim 22:5251–5272CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Schubert S, Suarez M, Pegion P, Koster R, Bacmeister J (2004a) Causes of long-term drought in the US Great Plains. J Clim 17:485–503CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Schubert S, Suarez M, Pegion P, Koster R, Bacmeister J (2004b) On the cause of the 1930s Dust Bowl. Science 303:1855–1859CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Seager R (2007) The turn of the century North American drought: global context, dynamics, and past analogs. J Clim 20:5527–5552CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Seager R, Harnik N, Kushnir Y, Robinson W, Miller J (2003) Mechanisms of hemispherically symmetric climate variability. J Clim 16:2960–2978CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Seager R, Harnik N, Robinson W, Kushnir Y, Ting M, Huang H, Velez J (2005a) Mechanisms of ENSO-forcing of hemispherically symmetric precipitation variability. Q J R Meteorol Soc 131(608):1501–1528CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Seager R, Kushnir Y, Herweijer C, Naik N, Velez J (2005b) Modeling of tropical forcing of persistent droughts and pluvials over Western North America: 1856–2000. J Clim 18:4065–4088CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Seager R, Kushnir Y, Ting M, Cane M, Naik N, Miller J (2008) Would advance knowledge of 1930s SSTs have allowed prediction of the Dust Bowl Drought? J Clim 21:3261–3281CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Sutton R, Hodson D (2005) Atlantic Ocean forcing of North American and European summer climate. Science 309:115CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Sutton R, Hodson D (2007) Climate response to basin-scale warming and cooling of the North Atlantic Ocean. J Clim 20:891–907CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Trenberth K, Branstator G, Karoly D, Kumar A, Lau N, Ropelewski C (1998) Progress during TOGA in understanding and modeling global teleconnections associated with tropical sea surface temperatures. J Geophys Res Oceans 103Google Scholar
  45. Trenberth K, et al (1997) The definition of El Niño. Bull Am Meteorol Soc 78:2771–2777CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Wallace J, Gutzler D (1981) Teleconnections in the geopotential height field during the Northern Hemisphere winter. Mon Weather Rev 109:784–812CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Wang C, Enfield D, Lee S, Landsea C (2006) Influences of the Atlantic warm pool on Western Hemisphere summer rainfall and Atlantic hurricanes. J Clim 19:3011–3028CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Wang H, Schubert S, Suarez M, Koster R (2010) The physical mechanisms by which the leading patterns of SST variability impact US precipitation. J ClimGoogle Scholar
  49. Weaver S, Nigam S (2008) Variability of the Great Plains low-level jet: large-scale circulation context and hydroclimate impacts. J Clim 21:1531–1551CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Weaver S, Schubert S, Wang H (2009) Warm season variations in the low-level circulation and precipitation over the central United States in observations, AMIP simulations, and idealized SST experiments. J Clim 22:5401–5420CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Wood K, Overland J (2009) Early 20th century arctic warming in retrospect. Int J ClimatolGoogle Scholar
  52. Yoo J, Zeng N (2010) An atlantic influence on amazon rainfall. Clim Dyn 34(2–3)Google Scholar

Copyright information

© US government 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Benjamin I. Cook
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  • Richard Seager
    • 1
  • Ron L. Miller
    • 2
  1. 1.Lamont-Doherty Earth ObservatoryPalisadesUSA
  2. 2.NASA Goddard Institute for Space StudiesNew YorkUSA

Personalised recommendations