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Probability of afternoon precipitation in eastern United States and Mexico enhanced by high evaporation


Moisture and heat fluxes from the land surface to the atmosphere form a critical nexus between surface hydrology and atmospheric processes, particularly those relevant to precipitation. Although current theory suggests that soil moisture generally has a positive impact on subsequent precipitation, individual studies have shown support both for1,2,3,4 and against5,6,7 this positive feedback. Broad assessment of the coupling between soil moisture and evapotranspiration, and evapotranspiration and precipitation, has been limited by a lack of large-scale observations. Quantification of the influence of evapotranspiration on precipitation remains particularly uncertain. Here, we develop and apply physically based, objective metrics for quantifying the impacts of surface evaporative and sensible heat fluxes on the frequency and intensity of convective rainfall during summer, using North American reanalysis data. We show that high evaporation enhances the probability of afternoon rainfall east of the Mississippi and in Mexico. Indeed, variations in surface fluxes lead to changes in afternoon rainfall probability of between 10 and 25% in these regions. The intensity of rainfall, by contrast, is largely insensitive to surface fluxes. We suggest that local surface fluxes represent an important trigger for convective rainfall in the eastern United States and Mexico during the summer, leading to a positive evaporation–precipitation feedback.

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Figure 1: The sensitivity of convective triggering and rainfall depth to evaporative fraction.
Figure 2: The sensitivity of TFS and AFS to rainfall time period.
Figure 3: Normalized, non-dimensional versions of sensitivity maps.
Figure 4: Functional relationships between normalized metrics and mean evaporative fraction.

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We thank R. Stouffer, S. Malyshev, F. D’Andrea, S. Seneviratne and A. Berg for providing comments on the manuscript. We thank A. Wittenberg for help with the determination of ENSO years. P.G. and B.R.L. are supported by an NSF grant and B.R.L. is also supported by a NOAA grant and an NJAES Hatch grant. National Centers for Environmental Prediction (NCEP) North American Regional Reanalysis (NARR) data provided by the National Climatic Data Center from their website:

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K.L.F. performed the analysis of the data and wrote the paper. K.L.F., P.G. and B.R.L. jointly designed and refined the study. P.G. and B.R.L. contributed equally to the work. C.K. converted the original data to netCDF format. All authors discussed the results and commented on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Kirsten L. Findell.

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Findell, K., Gentine, P., Lintner, B. et al. Probability of afternoon precipitation in eastern United States and Mexico enhanced by high evaporation. Nature Geosci 4, 434–439 (2011).

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