Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting nature.com. 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.

Increasing precipitation volatility in twenty-first-century California

Abstract

Mediterranean climate regimes are particularly susceptible to rapid shifts between drought and flood—of which, California’s rapid transition from record multi-year dryness between 2012 and 2016 to extreme wetness during the 2016–2017 winter provides a dramatic example. Projected future changes in such dry-to-wet events, however, remain inadequately quantified, which we investigate here using the Community Earth System Model Large Ensemble of climate model simulations. Anthropogenic forcing is found to yield large twenty-first-century increases in the frequency of wet extremes, including a more than threefold increase in sub-seasonal events comparable to California’s ‘Great Flood of 1862’. Smaller but statistically robust increases in dry extremes are also apparent. As a consequence, a 25% to 100% increase in extreme dry-to-wet precipitation events is projected, despite only modest changes in mean precipitation. Such hydrological cycle intensification would seriously challenge California’s existing water storage, conveyance and flood control infrastructure.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.

from$8.99

All prices are NET prices.

Fig. 1: Change in frequency of extremely wet seasons.
Fig. 2: Cumulative occurrence of extremely wet sub-seasonal storm sequences.
Fig. 3: Change in frequency of extremely dry seasons.
Fig. 4: Change in frequency of precipitation whiplash events.
Fig. 5: Shifts in precipitation seasonality.
Fig. 6: Large-scale atmospheric conditions linked to California precipitation extremes.

References

  1. 1.

    Kottek, M., Grieser, J., Beck, C., Rudolf, B. & Rubel, F. World map of the Köppen-Geiger climate classification updated. Meteorol. Z. 15, 259–263 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. 2.

    Karnauskas, K. B. & Ummenhofer, C. C. On the dynamics of the Hadley circulation and subtropical drying. Clim. Dynam. 42, 2259–2269 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. 3.

    Dettinger, M. Atmospheric rivers as drought busters on the US West Coast. J. Hydrometeorol. 14, 1721–1732 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. 4.

    Stephen, H. S., Terry, L. R. & Michael, D. M. Encyclopedia of Climate and Weather (Oxford Univ. Press, New York, 2011).

  5. 5.

    Horton, D. et al. Contribution of changes in atmospheric circulation patterns to extreme temperature trends. Nature 522, 465–469 (2015).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  6. 6.

    Dettinger, M. D., Ralph, F. M., Das, T., Neiman, P. J. & Cayan, D. R. Atmospheric rivers, floods and the water resources of California. Water 3, 445–478 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. 7.

    Langenbrunner, B., Neelin, J. D., Lintner, B. R. & Anderson, B. T. Patterns of precipitation change and climatological uncertainty among CMIP5 models, with a focus on the midlatitude Pacific storm track. J. Clim. 28, 7857–7872 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. 8.

    Swain, D. et al. The extraordinary California drought of 2013/2014: character, context, and the role of climate change. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 95, S3–S7 (2014).

    Google Scholar 

  9. 9.

    Dettinger, M. Historical and future relations between large storms and droughts in California. San Francisco Estuary Watershed Sci. 14, 1 (2016).

    Google Scholar 

  10. 10.

    Wang, S. Y. S., Yoon, J.-H., Becker, E. & Gillies, R. California from drought to deluge. Nat. Clim. Change 7, 465–468 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. 11.

    Swain, D. A tale of two California droughts: lessons amidst record warmth and dryness in a region of complex physical and human geography. Geophys. Res. Lett. 42, 9999–10003 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. 12.

    Cowling, R. M., Rundel, P. W., Lamont, B. B., Kalin Arroyo, M. & Arianoutsou, M. Plant diversity in Mediterranean-climate regions. Trends Ecol. Evol. 11, 362–366 (1996).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  13. 13.

    Griffin, D. & Anchukaitis, K. J. How unusual is the 2012–2014 California drought?. Geophys. Res. Lett. 41, 9017–9023 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. 14.

    Swain, D., Horton, D., Singh, D. & Diffenbaugh, N. Trends in atmospheric patterns conducive to seasonal precipitation and temperature extremes in California. Sci. Adv. 2, e1501344 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. 15.

    Robeson, S. Revisiting the recent California drought as an extreme value.Geophys. Res. Lett. 42, 6771–6779 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. 16.

    Serna, J. California faces $860-million repair bill for roads battered by record winter storms. Los Angeles Times (3 April 2017).

  17. 17.

    Schmidt, S., Hawkins, D & Phillips, K. 188,000 evacuated as California’s massive Oroville Dam threatens catastrophic floods. Washington Post (3 February 2017).

  18. 18.

    Seager, R. et al. Causes of the 2011–14 California drought. J. Clim. 28, 6997–7024 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. 19.

    Simpson, I. R., Seager, R., Ting, M. & Shaw, T. A. Causes of change in Northern Hemisphere winter meridional winds and regional hydroclimate. Nat. Clim. Change 6, 65–70 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. 20.

    Neelin, J. D., Langenbrunner, B., Meyerson, J. E., Hall, A. & Berg, N. California winter precipitation change under global warming in the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase 5 ensemble. J. Clim. 26, 6238–6256 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. 21.

    Berg, N. & Hall, A. Increased interannual precipitation extremes over California under climate change. J. Clim. 28, 6324–6334 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. 22.

    Wang, S.-Y. S., Huang, W.-R. & Yoon, J.-H. The North American winter ‘dipole’ and extremes activity: a CMIP5 assessment. Atmos. Sci. Lett. 16, 338–345 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. 23.

    Yoon, J.-H. Increasing water cycle extremes in California and in relation to ENSO cycle under global warming. Nat. Commun. 6, 8657 (2015).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  24. 24.

    Dettinger, M. Climate change, atmospheric rivers, and floods in California—a multimodel analysis of storm frequency and magnitude changes. J. Am. Water Resour. Assoc. 47, 514–523 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. 25.

    Giorgi, F. et al. Higher hydroclimatic intensity with global warming. J. Clim. 24, 5309–5324 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. 26.

    Trenberth, K. E., Dai, A., Rasmussen, R. M. & Parsons, D. B. The changing character of precipitation. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 84, 1205–1217 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. 27.

    Donat, M. G., Lowry, A. L., Alexander, L. V., Ogorman, P. A. & Maher, N. More extreme precipitation in the world's dry and wet regions. Nat. Clim. Change 6, 508–513 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. 28.

    Diffenbaugh, N., Swain, D. & Touma, D. Anthropogenic warming has increased drought risk in California. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 112, 3931–3936 (2015).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  29. 29.

    Williams, A. P. et al. Contribution of anthropogenic warming to California drought during 2012–2014. Geophys. Res. Lett. 42, 6819–6828 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. 30.

    Wang, S. Y., Hipps, L., Gillies, R. R. & Yoon, J.-H. Probable causes of the abnormal ridge accompanying the 2013–2014 California drought: ENSO precursor and anthropogenic warming footprint. Geophys. Res. Lett. 41, 3220–3226 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. 31.

    Swain, D. L. et al. Remote linkages to anomalous winter atmospheric ridging over the northeastern Pacific. J. Geophys. Res. Atmos. 122, 12194–12209 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. 32.

    Angélil, O. et al. An independent assessment of anthropogenic attribution statements for recent extreme temperature and rainfall events. J. Clim. 30, 5–16 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. 33.

    IPCC Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis (eds Stocker, T. F. et al.) (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2013).

  34. 34.

    Kay, J. E. et al. The Community Earth System Model (CESM) Large Ensemble project: a community resource for studying climate change in the presence of internal climate variability. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 96, 1333–1349 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. 35.

    Diffenbaugh, N. S. et al. Quantifying the influence of global warming on unprecedented extreme climate events. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 114, 4881–4886 (2017).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  36. 36.

    Jakob, D. in Extremes in a Changing Climate: Detection, Analysis and Uncertainty (eds AghaKouchak, A., Easterling, D., Hsu, K., Schubert, S. & Sorooshian, S.) 363–417 (Springer, New York, 2013).

  37. 37.

    Ralph, F. M. et al. Flooding on California’s Russian River: role of atmospheric rivers. Geophys. Res. Lett. 33, L13801 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. 38.

    Engstrom, W. N. The California Storm of January 1862. Quat. Res. 46, 141–148 (1996).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. 39.

    Porter, K. et al. Overview of the ARkStorm Scenario Report No. 2010-1312 (United States Geological Survey, 2011).

  40. 40.

    Wing, I. S., Rose, A. Z. & Wein, A. M. Economic consequence analysis of the ARkStorm scenario. Nat. Hazards Rev. 17, A4015002 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. 41.

    Jones, C., Waliser, D. E., Lau, K. M. & Stern, W. Global occurrences of extreme precipitation and the Madden–Julian Oscillation: observations and predictability. J. Clim. 17, 4575–4589 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. 42.

    Hoell, A. et al. Does El Niño intensity matter for California precipitation? Geophys. Res. Lett. 43, 819–825 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. 43.

    Diffenbaugh, N. S. & Giorgi, F. Climate change hotspots in the CMIP5 global climate model ensemble. Climatic Change 114, 813–822 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. 44.

    Teng, H. & Branstator, G. Causes of extreme ridges that induce California droughts. J. Clim. 30, 1477–1492 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  45. 45.

    Trenberth, K. E., Dai, A., Rasmussen, R. M. & Parsons, D. B. The changing character of precipitation. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 84, 1205–1217 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. 46.

    Cvijanovic, I. et al. Future loss of Arctic sea-ice cover could drive a substantial decrease in California’s rainfall. Nat. Commun. 8, 1947 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  47. 47.

    Lee, M.-Y., Hong, C.-C. & Hsu, H.-H. Compounding effects of warm sea surface temperature and reduced sea ice on the extreme circulation over the extratropical North Pacific and North America during the 2013–2014 boreal winter. Geophys. Res. Lett. 42, 1612–1618 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  48. 48.

    Blackport, R. & Kushner, P. J. Isolating the atmospheric circulation response to Arctic sea ice loss in the coupled climate system. J. Clim. 30, 2163–2185 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  49. 49.

    Taylor, K. E., Stouffer, R. J. & Meehl, G. A. An overview of CMIP5 and the experiment design. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 93, 485–498 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  50. 50.

    Deser, C., Phillips, A. S., Alexander, M. A. & Smoliak, B. V. Projecting North American climate over the next 50 years: uncertainty due to internal variability. J. Clim. 27, 2271–2296 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  51. 51.

    Fuss, S. et al. Betting on negative emissions. Nat. Clim. Change 4, 850–853 (2014).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  52. 52.

    Dettinger, M.D. & Ingram, B.L. The coming megafloods. Sci. Am. 308, 64–71 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  53. 53.

    Malamud-Roam, F. P., Lynn Ingram, B., Hughes, M. & Florsheim, J. L. Holocene paleoclimate records from a large California estuarine system and its watershed region: linking watershed climate and bay conditions. Quat. Sci. Rev. 25, 1570–1598 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  54. 54.

    IPCC Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation (eds Field, C.B. et al.) (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2012).

  55. 55.

    Overpeck, J. T. The challenge of hot drought. Nature 503, 350–351 (2013).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  56. 56.

    Sandvik, M. I., Sorteberg, A. & Rasmussen, R. Sensitivity of historical orographically enhanced extreme precipitation events to idealized temperature perturbations. Clim. Dynam. 50, 143–157 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  57. 57.

    Allen, R. J. & Luptowitz, R. El Niño-like teleconnection increases California precipitation in response to warming. Nat. Commun. 8, 16055 (2017).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  58. 58.

    Adler, R. F. et al. The Version-2 Global Precipitation Climatology Project (GPCP) monthly precipitation analysis (1979–present). J. Hydrometeorol. 4, 1147–1167 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  59. 59.

    Kalnay, E. et al. The NCEP/NCAR 40-year reanalysis project. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 77, 437–471 (1996).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  60. 60.

    Hagos, S. M., Leung, L. R., Yoon, J.-H., Lu, J. & Gao, Y. A projection of changes in landfalling atmospheric river frequency and extreme precipitation over western North America from the Large Ensemble CESM simulations. Geophys. Res. Lett. 43, 1357–1363 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

Our work was supported by a grant from the University of California, Los Angeles Sustainable LA Grand Challenge (D.L.S., J.D.N. and A.H.), by National Science Foundation grant AGS-1540518 (J.D.N. and B.L.) and by US Department of Energy Grant 201603457-04 (A.H.). The NatureNet Science Fellows Program provided funding to D.L.S. through a collaboration between The Nature Conservancy and the University of California, Los Angeles.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Contributions

D.L.S., B.L., J.D.N, and A.H. conceived of the study and designed the analyses. D.L.S. and B.L. provided analysis tools and conducted the analyses. D.L.S. wrote the manuscript and B.L., J.D.N. and A.H. provided comments and feedback.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Daniel L. Swain.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figures 1–12

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Swain, D.L., Langenbrunner, B., Neelin, J.D. et al. Increasing precipitation volatility in twenty-first-century California. Nature Clim Change 8, 427–433 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-018-0140-y

Download citation

Further reading

Search

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