Would advance knowledge of 1930s SSTs have allowed prediction of the dust bowl drought?

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Journal of Climate
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Could the Dust Bowl drought of the 1930s have been predicted in advance if the SST anomalies of the 1930s had been foreknown? Ensembles of model simulations forced with historical observed SSTs in the global ocean, and also separately in the tropical Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, are compared with an ensemble begun in January 1929 with modeled atmosphere and land initial conditions and integrated through the 1930s with climatological SSTs. The ensemble with climatological SSTs produces values for the precipitation averaged over 1932-39 that are not statistically different from model climatology. In contrast, the ensembles with global SST forcing produce a drought centered in the central plains and southwestern North America that is clearly separated from the model climatology. Both the tropical Pacific and northern tropical Atlantic SST anomalies produce a statistically significant model drought in this region. The modeled drought has a spatial pattern that is different from the observed drought, which was instead centered in the central and northern plains and also impacted the northern Rocky Mountain states but not northeastern Mexico. The model error in extending the Dust Bowl drought too far south is attributed to an incorrect response of the model to warm subtropical North Atlantic SST anomalies. The model error in the northern states cannot be attributed to an incorrect response to tropical SST anomalies. The model also fails to reproduce the strong surface air warming across most of the continent during the 1930s. In contrast, the modeled patterns of precipitation reduction and surface air temperature warming during the 1950s drought are more realistic. Tree-ring records show that the Dust Bowl pattern of drought has occurred before, suggesting that while the extensive human-induced land surface degradation and dust aerosol loading of the 1930s drought may have played an important role in generating the observed drought pattern, natural processes, possibly including land interactions, are capable of generating droughts centered to the north of the main ENSO teleconnection region. Despite this caveat, advance knowledge of tropical SSTs alone would have allowed a high-confidence prediction of a multiyear and severe drought, but one centered too far south and without strong cross-continental warming.


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Doi 10.1175/2007jcli2134.1