The Physics of Drought in the US Central Great Plains
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The Physics of Drought in the US Central Great Plains

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  • Journal Title:
    Journal of Climate
  • Description:
    The semiarid U.S. Great Plains is prone to severe droughts having major consequences for agricultural production, livestock health, and river navigation. The recent 2012 event was accompanied by record deficits in precipitation and high temperatures during the May August growing season. Here the physics of Great Plains drought are explored by addressing how meteorological drivers induce soil moisture deficits during the growing season. Land surface model (LSM) simulations driven by daily observed meteorological forcing from 1950 to 2013 compare favorably with satellite-derived terrestrial water anomalies and reproduce key features found in the U.S. Drought Monitor. Results from simulations by two LSMs reveal that precipitation was directly responsible for between 72% and 80% of the soil moisture depletion during 2012, and likewise has accounted for the majority of Great Plains soil moisture variability since 1950. Energy balance considerations indicate that a large fraction of the growing season temperature variability is itself driven by precipitation, pointing toward an even larger net contribution of precipitation to soil moisture variability. To assess robustness across a larger sample of drought events, daily meteorological output from 1050 years of climate simulations, representative of conditions in 1979-2013, are used to drive two LSMs. Growing season droughts, and low soil moisture conditions especially, are confirmed to result principally from rainfall deficits. Antecedent meteorological and soil moisture conditions are shown to affect growing season soil moisture, but their effects are secondary to forcing by contemporaneous rainfall deficits. This understanding of the physics of growing season droughts is used to comment on plausible Great Plains soil moisture changes in a warmer world.
  • Source:
    Journal of Climate, 29(18), 6783-6804.
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