Ocean-Atmosphere Trajectories of Extended Drought in Southwestern North America

Thumbnail Image



Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title

Repository Usage Stats


Citation Stats


Multiyear droughts are a common occurrence in southwestern North America (SWNA), but it is unclear what causes these persistent dry periods. The ocean-atmosphere conditions coinciding with droughts have traditionally been studied using correlation and composite methods, which suggest that cool conditions in the tropical Pacific are associated with SWNA droughts and warm conditions are associated with wet periods in SWNA. Nevertheless, the extent to which multiyear droughts are truly consistent with this paradigm remains unknown. This is, in part, because the temporal trajectory of ocean-atmosphere conditions during these dry periods have not been sufficiently characterized. Here we examine the continuum of ocean-atmosphere trajectories before, during, and after multiyear droughts in SWNA using observation-based data and an ensemble of climate model simulations from the Community Earth System Model. An examination of sea surface temperature patterns at the beginning, middle, and end of SWNA droughts shows that an El Niño event tends to precede SWNA droughts, a cool tropical Pacific occurs during droughts, and central Pacific El Niño events end droughts. However, moderate El Niño events can occur in the middle of persistent droughts, so a warm tropical Pacific does not always end these dry periods. These findings are important for drought predictability and emphasize the need to improve simulations of the magnitude, life cycle, and frequency of occurrence of El Niño events.






Published Version (Please cite this version)


Publication Info

Parsons, LA, and S Coats (2019). Ocean-Atmosphere Trajectories of Extended Drought in Southwestern North America. Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres, 124(16). pp. 8953–8971. 10.1029/2019JD030424 Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/26196.

This is constructed from limited available data and may be imprecise. To cite this article, please review & use the official citation provided by the journal.



Luke Parsons


Luke Parsons is a climate researcher and lecturer. He teaches about climate change and climate impacts and studies climate dynamics, drought, and climate change + deforestation + emissions impacts on the environment, human health, well-being, and the economy. In addition to his work as a researcher, Luke is also a Wilderness First Responder and former NOLS instructor who enjoys backpacking, climbing, and taking panoramic landscape photographs.

Unless otherwise indicated, scholarly articles published by Duke faculty members are made available here with a CC-BY-NC (Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial) license, as enabled by the Duke Open Access Policy. If you wish to use the materials in ways not already permitted under CC-BY-NC, please consult the copyright owner. Other materials are made available here through the author’s grant of a non-exclusive license to make their work openly accessible.