Shifting Pacific storm tracks as stressors to ecosystems of western North America

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Dannenberg, Matthew P., and Erika K. Wise
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Much of the precipitation delivered to western North America arrives during the cool season via midlatitude Pacific storm tracks, which may experience future shifts in response to climate change. Here, we assess the sensitivity of the hydroclimate and ecosystems of western North America to the latitudinal position of cool-season Pacific storm tracks. We calculated correlations between storm track variability and three hydroclimatic variables: gridded cool-season standardized precipitation-evapotranspiration index, April snow water equivalent, and water year streamflow from a network of USGS stream gauges. To assess how historical storm track variability affected ecosystem processes, we derived forest growth estimates from a large network of tree-ring widths and land surface phenology and wildfire estimates from remote sensing. From 1980-2014, cool-season storm tracks entered western North America between approximately 41°N to 53°N. Cool-season moisture supply and snowpack responded strongly to storm track position, with positive correlations to storm track latitude in eastern Alaska and northwestern Canada but negative correlations in the northwestern U.S. Ecosystems of the western U.S. were greener and more productive following winters with south-shifted storm tracks, while Canadian ecosystems were greener in years when the cool-season storm track was shifted to the north. On average, larger areas of the northwestern U.S. were burned by moderate to high severity wildfires when storm tracks were displaced north, and the average burn area per fire also tended to be higher in years with north-shifted storm tracks. These results suggest that projected shifts of Pacific storm tracks over the 21st century would likely alter hydroclimatic and ecological regimes in western North America, particularly in the northwestern U.S., where moisture supply and ecosystem processes are highly sensitive to the position of cool-season storm tracks.


Dannenberg, Matthew P., and Erika K. Wise. 2017. “Shifting Pacific Storm Tracks as Stressors to Ecosystems of Western North America.” Global Change Biology. doi:10.1111/gcb.13748.