Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

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.

This is a preview of subscription content

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

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.


  1. Cook, E. R., Seager, R., Cane, M. A. & Stahle, D. W. North American drought: Reconstructions, causes, and consequences. Earth-Sci. Rev. 81, 93–134 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. McCabe, G. J., Palecki, M. A. & Betancourt, J. L. Pacific and Atlantic Ocean influences on multidecadal drought frequency in the United States. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 101, 4136 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Dettinger, M. D., Cayan, D. R., Diaz, H. F. & Meko, D. M. North–south precipitation patterns in western North America on interannual-to-decadal timescales. J. Clim. 11, 3095–3111 (1998).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Cook, B. I., Cook, E. R., Anchukaitis, K. J., Seager, R. & Miller, R. L. Forced and unforced variability of twentieth century North American droughts and pluvials. Clim. Dyn. 37, 1097–1110 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Qiu, B. Interannual variability of the Kuroshio Extension system and its impact on the wintertime SST field. J. Phys. Oceanogr. 30, 1486–1502 (2000).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Shindell, D., Rind, D., Balachandran, N., Lean, J. & Lonergan, P. Solar cycle variability, ozone, and climate. Science 284, 305–308 (1999).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Mantua, N. J. & Hare, S. R. The Pacific decadal oscillation. J. Oceanogr. 58, 35–44 (2002).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Cobb, K. M., Charles, C. D., Cheng, H. & Edwards, R. L. El Nino/Southern Oscillation and tropical Pacific climate during the last millennium. Nature 424, 271–276 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Mann, M. E. et al. Global signatures and dynamical origins of the Little Ice Age and Medieval Climate Anomaly. Science 326, 1256–1260 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Cole, J., Overpeck, J. & Cook, E. Multiyear La Niña events and persistent drought in the contiguous United States. Geophys. Res. Lett. 29, 1647 (2002).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Conroy, J. L., Overpeck, J. T., Cole, J. E. & Steinitz-Kannan, M. Variable oceanic influences on western North American drought over the last 1200 years. Geophys. Res. Lett. 36, L17703 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Seager, R. & Vecchi, G. A. Greenhouse warming and the 21st century hydroclimate of southwestern North America. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 107, 21277–21282 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Furtado, J. C., Di Lorenzo, E., Schneider, N. & Bond, N. A. North Pacific decadal variability and climate change in the IPCC AR4 models. J. Clim. 24, 3049–3067 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Shakun, J. D. & Shaman, J. Tropical origins of North and South Pacific decadal variability. Geophys. Res. Lett. 36, L19711 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Latif, M. & Barnett, T. P. Causes of decadal climate variability over the North Pacific and North America. Science 266, 634–637 (1994).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Biondi, F., Gershunov, A. & Cayan, D. R. North Pacific decadal climate variability since 1661. J. Clim. 14, 5–10 (2001).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. MacDonald, G. M. & Case, R. A. Variations in the Pacific Decadal Oscillation over the past millennium. Geophys. Res. Lett. 32, L08703 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. D’Arrigo, R. & Wilson, R. On the Asian expression of the PDO. Int. J. Climatol. 26, 1607–1617 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Kipfmueller, K. F., Larson, E. R. & George, S. S. Does proxy uncertainty affect the relations inferred between the Pacific Decadal Oscillation and wildfire activity in the western United States? Geophys. Res. Lett. 39, L04703 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Friedman, I., Smith, G. I., Gleason, J. D., Warden, A. & Harris, J. M. Stable isotope composition of waters in southeastern California. 1: Modern precipitation. J. Geophys. Res. 97, 5795–5812 (1992).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Berkelhammer, M., Stott, L., Yoshimura, K., Johnson, K. & Sinha, A. Synoptic and mesoscale controls on the isotopic composition of precipitation in the western United States. Clim. Dynam. 38, 433–454 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Scholz, D. & Hoffmann, D. L. StalAge-An algorithm designed for construction of speleothem age models. Quat. Geochronol. 6, 369–382 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Genty, D. & Massault, M. Carbon transfer dynamics from bomb 14C and δ13C time series of a laminated stalagmite from SW France; modelling and comparison with other stalagmite records. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 63, 1537–1548 (1999).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Ren, X., Zhang, Y. & Xiang, Y. Connections between wintertime jet stream variability, oceanic surface heating, and transient eddy activity in the North Pacific. J. Geophys. Res. 113, D21119 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Kaplan, A. et al. Analyses of global sea surface temperature 1856–1991. J. Geophys. Res. 103, 567–518 (1998).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Woodhouse, C. A., Meko, D. M., MacDonald, G. M., Stahle, D. W. & Cook, E. R. A 1,200-year perspective of 21st century drought in southwestern North America. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 107, 21283–21288 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Schulz, M. & Mudelsee, M. REDFIT: Estimating red-noise spectra directly from unevenly spaced paleoclimatic time series. Comput. Geosci. 28, 421–426 (2002).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Torrence, C. & Compo, G. P. A practical guide to wavelet analysis. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 79, 61–78 (1998).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Meehl, G. A., Washington, W. M., Wigley, T. M. L., Arblaster, J. M. & Dai, A. Solar and greenhouse gas forcing and climate response in the twentieth century. J. Climate 16, 426–444 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Macias-Fauria, M., Grinsted, A., Helama, S. & Holopainen, J. Persistence matters: Estimation of the statistical significance of paleoclimatic reconstruction statistics from autocorrelated time series. Dendrochronologia 30, 179–187 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


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.

Author information

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.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Kathleen R. Johnson.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Information (PDF 1403 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

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).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

Further reading


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing