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Moisture variability in the southwestern United States linked to abrupt glacial climate change


Many regions of the world experienced abrupt climate variability during the last glacial period (75–15 thousand years ago1,2). These changes probably arose from interactions between Northern Hemisphere ice sheets and circulation in the North Atlantic Ocean3, but the rapid and widespread propagation of these changes requires a large-scale atmospheric response whose details remain unclear4,5,6,7. Here we use an oxygen isotope record from a speleothem collected from the Cave of the Bells, Arizona, USA, to reconstruct aridity in the southwestern United States during the last glacial period and deglaciation. We find that, during this period, aridity in the southwestern United States and climate in the North Atlantic region show similar patterns of variability. Periods of warmth in the North Atlantic Ocean, such as interstadials and the Bølling–Allerød warming, correspond to drier conditions in the southwestern United States. Conversely, cooler temperatures in the high latitudes are associated with increased regional moisture. We propose that interstadial warming of the North Atlantic Ocean diverted the westerly storm track northward, perhaps through weakening of the Aleutian Low, and thereby reduced moisture delivery to southwestern North America. A similar response to future warming would exacerbate aridity in this already very dry region.

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Figure 1: Correlation of winter precipitation with Atlantic SST.
Figure 2: Comparison of deglacial COB record with other records.
Figure 3: Comparison of COB record during MIS3 with other records of millennial variability.


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We appreciate constructive comments from T. Ault, T. Broccoli, K. Dahl, I. Hendy, J. Overpeck and J. Quade, and useful critiques from two anonymous reviewers. Dripwater collection has been sustained by D. Hoburg, and permission to work at the Cave of the Bells was facilitated by J. Trout, US Forest Service. C. Eastoe and A. Long provided the Tucson precipitation isotopic data. This work was supported by the US National Science Foundation (Earth system history 03-18480), the University of Arizona (Faculty Small Grant program and Geosciences Department) and the Geological Society of America.

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Authors and Affiliations



J.E.C., J.W.B. and P.J.P. conceived the study. J.D.M.W., P.J.P. and G.M.H. implemented the U/Th analyses. J.D.M.W., H.R.B. and J.E.C. implemented the stable isotopic analyses. All authors participated in data discussion and interpretation. J.E.C. and J.D.M.W. wrote the initial manuscript, and all authors provided substantial comments and editorial revisions to the manuscript.

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Correspondence to J. E. Cole.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Wagner, J., Cole, J., Beck, J. et al. Moisture variability in the southwestern United States linked to abrupt glacial climate change. Nature Geosci 3, 110–113 (2010).

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