Historical and future relations between large storms and droughts in California

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Dettinger, Michael
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California precipitation varies more dramatically from year to year than elsewhere in the conterminous United States. This paper analyzes the extent to which contributions of the wettest days to overall precipitation dictate the state’s precipitation seasonality and frequent multiyear periods of drought (as precipitation deficit) and plenty is analyzed, historically and in projections of future climates. The wettest 5% of wet days in California contribute about a third of precipitation but about two-thirds of the variance of water-year precipitation. Year-to-year fluctuations in precipitation strongly reflect year-to-year fluctuations of contributions from the largest storms, with the large-storm contributions explaining about twice as much precipitation fluctuation as do contributions from all remaining storms combined. This extreme dominance of large storms is largely unique to California within the United States. In climate-change projections, eight of ten climate models considered here yield increases in precipitation from the largest storms, and when the increases are large, total precipitation follows suit. All of the models project declines in contributions from the smaller storms and models projecting total-precipitation declines reflect this decline. Projected changes in variance of water-year precipitation reflect changes in variance of large-storm contributions. The disproportionately large overall contributions from California’s largest storms, and their outsized year-to-year variability, ensure that the state’s largest storms dictate the state’s regimes of wet and dry spells, historically and in climate-change projections.


Dettinger, Michael. 2016. “Historical and Future Relations between Large Storms and Droughts in California.” San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Science 14 (2).