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Variable North Pacific influence on drought in southwestern North America since AD 854



Precipitation in southwestern North America has exhibited significant natural variability over the past few thousand years1. This variability has been attributed to sea surface temperature regimes in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, and to the attendant shifts in atmospheric circulation patterns1,2. In particular, decadal variability in the North Pacific has influenced precipitation in this region during the twentieth century3,4, but links to earlier droughts and pluvials are unclear. Here we assess these links using δ18O data from a speleothem from southern California that spans AD 854–2007. We show that variations in the oxygen isotopes of the speleothem correlate to sea surface temperatures in the Kuroshio Extension region5 of the North Pacific, which affect the atmospheric trajectory and isotopic composition of moisture reaching the study site. Interpreting our speleothem data as a record of sea surface temperatures in the Kuroshio Extension, we find a strong 22-year periodicity, suggesting a persistent solar influence6 on North Pacific decadal variability. A comparison with tree-ring records of precipitation1 during the past millennium shows that some droughts occurred during periods of warmth in the Kuroshio Extension, similar to the instrumental record4. However, other droughts did not and instead must have been influenced by other factors. Finally, we find a significant increase in sea surface temperature variability over the past 150 years, which may reflect an influence of greenhouse gas concentrations on variability in the North Pacific.

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Figure 1: Extended Kuroshio Extension SST anomaly reconstruction and CRC-3 δ18O values.
Figure 2: SST, wind and geopotential heights associated with CRC-3 δ18O anomalies.
Figure 3: Comparison of the Kuroshio Extension SST anomaly z-scores with other key records.
Figure 4: Spectral and wavelet analysis of the CRC-3 δ18O record.


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We would like to thank the Sequoia National Park staff, especially J. Despain, A. Esperanza, B. Tobin, H. Veercamp, E. Meyer and K. Nydick. All samples were collected with permission from the National Park Service (NPS Permits: SEKI-2007-SCI- 0024, SEKI-2008-SCI-0017, SEKI-2009-SCI-0004, SEKI-2010-SCI-0060, SEKI-2011-SCI-0053 and SEKI-2012-SCI-0440). We also thank J. Southon for assistance with radiocarbon dating. This work was partly supported by a faculty seed grant from the Newkirk Center for Science and Society at the University of California, Irvine, by the National Science Foundation grants to A.S. (ATM: 0823554 and AGS: 1103360) and by NSFC grant 41230524 to H.C.

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Authors and Affiliations



A.S. initiated the project. K.R.J., A.S. and S.M-G. collected the sample and conducted the modern calibration study. H.C. and R.L.E. conducted the U-series dating. S.M-G. conducted microsampling, stable isotope analysis, and age modelling in the laboratory of K.R.J. C.S. analysed reanalysis data and identified the relationship with Kuroshio Extension SST anomalies. M.B. conducted backtracking trajectory analysis. K.R.J. and S.M-G. conducted statistical, time-series and wavelet analysis and wrote the manuscript with contributions from all authors.

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Correspondence to Kathleen R. Johnson.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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McCabe-Glynn, S., Johnson, K., Strong, C. et al. Variable North Pacific influence on drought in southwestern North America since AD 854. Nature Geosci 6, 617–621 (2013).

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