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Variable winter moisture in the southwestern United States linked to rapid glacial climate shifts


During the last glacial period, the climate of the Northern Hemisphere was characterized by rapid, large-amplitude temperature fluctuations through cycles lasting a few thousand years1,2,3. These fluctuations are apparent in Greenland temperature reconstructions2,3, and corresponding temperature and hydrological variations have been documented throughout the Northern Hemisphere4,5. Here we present a record of precipitation in the southwestern United States from 56,000 to 11,000 yr ago, on the basis of δ18O measurements of speleothem calcite from New Mexico. Our record shows that increased winter precipitation in the southwestern United States is associated with Northern Hemisphere cooling, which we attribute to a southward shift in the polar jet stream, which modulated the position of the winter storm track over North America. On the western side of the Pacific Ocean basin, decreases in summer monsoon precipitation are associated with Northern Hemisphere cooling, due to southward displacement of the intertropical convergence zone4. We conclude that cooling and warming excursions in the Northern Hemisphere lead to concurrent latitudinal displacement of both the intertropical convergence zone and the polar jet stream over the Pacific Ocean. Our data are consistent with modern evidence for a northward shift of the polar jet stream in response to global warming6,7,8, which could lead to increasingly arid conditions in southwestern North America in the future.

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Figure 1: Location map of Fort Stanton Cave, New Mexico, United States.
Figure 2: Last glacial δ18O variations.
Figure 3: Schematic representation of meridional shifts of the ITCZ and the polar jet stream.


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This research was supported by grants from the US National Science Foundation ATM-0703353 to Y.A. and V.J.P. and EAR-0326902 to Y.A. and others. J. Goodbar, B. Murry, M. Bilbo and the Bureau of Land Management provided the necessary collection permits. P. Provencio, S. Bono and J. Rasmussen helped with the field work. J. Corcoran and the Fort Stanton Cave Study Project helped us select a collection site within Fort Stanton Cave.

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Y.A. was principal investigator and V.J.P. was co-investigator. V.J.P. and Y.A. were responsible for U/Th dating and S.J.B. for oxygen isotopic analysis. V.J.P. was responsible for sample collection. Y.A. wrote the manuscript with contributions from V.J.P. and S.J.B.

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Correspondence to Yemane Asmerom.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Asmerom, Y., Polyak, V. & Burns, S. Variable winter moisture in the southwestern United States linked to rapid glacial climate shifts. Nature Geosci 3, 114–117 (2010).

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