Natural Resources, School of


Date of this Version



Published in Climate Dynamics (2011); doi 10.1007/s00382-010-0835-x Copyright © 2010 Springer-Verlag. Used by permission.


This study investigates the relationship between North Atlantic sea surface temperatures (SST) and persistent drought in North America using modern observations, proxy paleodata, and simulations from multiple climate models. The observational results show that persistent droughts in the Great Plains and the southwest North America are closely related to multidecadal variations of North Atlantic SST (Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillations, AMO). During the AMO warm (cold) phases, most of North America is dry (wet). This relationship is persistent since at least 1567 AD, as based on proxy SST for the North Atlantic and the reconstructed drought index for North America. On centennial timescales, proxy SST records from the North Atlantic and proxy drought records for North America suggest that major periods of AMO-like warm (cold) SST anomalies during the last 7.0 ka correspond to dry (wet) conditions in the Great Plains. The influence of North Atlantic SST on North American droughts is examined using simulations made by five global climate models. When forced by warm North Atlantic SST anomalies, all models captured significant drying over North America, despite some regional differences. Specifically, dry summers in the Great Plains and the southwest North America are simulated by all models. The precipitation response to a cold North Atlantic is much weaker and contains greater disagreement among the models. Overall, the ensemble of the five models could well reproduce the statistical relationship between the dry/wet fluctuations in the North America and North Atlantic SST anomalies. Our results suggest that North Atlantic SSTs are likely a major driver of decadal and centennial timescale circulation, including droughts, in North America. Possible mechanisms that connect North Atlantic SST with North American drought, as well as interactions between North Atlantic and tropical Pacific SST and their relative roles on drought are also discussed.