Revisiting the leading drivers of Pacific coastal drought variability in the Contiguous United States

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Cook, Benjamin I., A. Park Williams, Justin S. Mankin, Richard Seager, Jason E. Smerdon, and Deepti Singh
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Coastal droughts simultaneously affecting California, Oregon, and Washington are rare, but have extensive and severe impacts (e.g., wildfire, agriculture). To better understand these events, we use historical observations to investigate: (1) drought variability along the Pacific Coast of the Contiguous United States and (2) years when extreme drought affects the entire coast. The leading pattern of cold-season (October–March) precipitation variability along the Pacific Coast favors spatially coherent moisture anomalies, accounts for > 40% of the underlying variance, and is forced primarily by internal atmospheric dynamics. This contrasts with a much weaker dipole mode (~20% of precipitation variability) characterized by anti-phased moisture anomalies across 40°N and strong correlations with tropical Pacific sea surface temperatures (SSTs). Sixteen coastal-wide summer droughts occurred from 1895–2016 (clustering in the 1920s–1930s and post-2000), events most strongly linked with the leading precipitation mode and internal atmospheric variability. The frequency of landfalling atmospheric rivers south of 40°N is sharply reduced during coastal droughts, but not north of this boundary where their frequency is more strongly influenced by the dipole. The lack of a consistent pattern of SST forcing during coastal droughts suggests little potential for skillful seasonal predictions. However, their tendency to cluster in time and the impact of warming during recent droughts may help inform decadal and longer-term drought risks.


Cook, Benjamin I., A. Park Williams, Justin S. Mankin, Richard Seager, Jason E. Smerdon, and Deepti Singh. 2017. “Revisiting the Leading Drivers of Pacific Coastal Drought Variability in the Contiguous United States.” Journal of Climate, September. doi:10.1175/JCLI-D-17-0172.1.