Is there a role for human-induced climate change in the precipitation decline that drove the California drought?

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Seager, Richard, Naomi Henderson, Mark A. Cane, Haibo Liu, and Jennifer Nakamura
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The recent California drought was associated with a persistent ridge at the west coast of North America that has been associated with, in part, forcing from warm SST anomalies in the tropical west Pacific. Here it is considered whether there is a role for human-induced climate change in favoring such a west coast ridge. The Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Five models do not support such a case either in terms of a shift in the mean circulation or in variance that would favor increased intensity or frequency of ridges. The models also do not support shifts towards a drier mean climate or more frequent or intense dry winters or to tropical SST states that would favor west coast ridges. However, Reanalyses do show that over the last century there has been a trend towards circulation anomalies over the Pacific-North America domain akin to those during the height of the California drought. The trend has been associated with a trend towards preferential warming of the Indo-west Pacific, an arrangement of tropical oceans and Pacific-North America circulation similar to that during winter 2013/14, the driest winter of the California drought. These height trends, however, are not reproduced in SST-forced atmosphere model ensembles. In contrast, idealized atmosphere modeling suggests that increased tropical Indo-Pacific zonal SST gradients are optimal for forcing height trends that favor a west coast ridge. These results allow a tenuous case for human-driven climate change driving increased gradients and favoring the west coast ridge but observational data are not sufficiently accurate to confirm or reject this case.


Seager, Richard, Naomi Henderson, Mark A. Cane, Haibo Liu, and Jennifer Nakamura. 2017. “Is There a Role for Human-Induced Climate Change in the Precipitation Decline That Drove the California Drought?” Journal of Climate, September. doi:10.1175/JCLI-D-17-0192.1.