Assessment of precipitation anomalies in California using TRMM and MERRA data

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Savtchenko, Andrey K., George Huffman, and Bruce Vollmer
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Using modern satellite (Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission, TRMM, 1998-2014) and reanalysis (Modern-Era Retrospective Analysis for Research and Applications, MERRA, 1979-2015) data we reassess certain aspects of the precipitation climate in California from the past decades. California has a well-pronounced rain season that peaks in December-February. However, the 95% confidence interval around the climatological precipitation during these months imply that deviations on the order of 60% of the expected amounts are very likely during the most important period of the rain season. While these positive and negative anomalies alternate almost every year and tend to cancel each other, severe multi-year declines of precipitation in California appear on decadal scales. The 1986-1994 decline of precipitation was similar to the current one that started in 2011, and is apparent in the reanalysis data. In terms of accumulated deficits of precipitation, that episode was no less severe than the current one. While El Niño (the warm phase of the El Niño Southern Oscillation, ENSO) is frequently cited as the natural forcing expected to bring a relief from drought, our assessment is that ENSO has been driving at best only 6% of precipitation variability in California in the past three decades. Using fractional risk analysis of precipitation during typical versus drying periods, we show that the likelihood of losing the most intensive precipitation events drastically increases during the multi-year drying events. Storms delivering up to 50% of the precipitation in California are driven by atmospheric rivers making landfall. However, these phenomena can be suppressed and even blocked by persistent ridges of atmospheric pressure in the northeast Pacific. The reanalysis and satellite data are proven to be reliable to the extent where they yield information on developing conditions and observed precipitation anomalies.


Savtchenko, Andrey K., George Huffman, and Bruce Vollmer. 2015. “Assessment of Precipitation Anomalies in California Using TRMM and MERRA Data.” Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres, July, 2015JD023573. doi:10.1002/2015JD023573.