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Great Plains storm intensity since the last glacial controlled by spring surface warming


Mesoscale convective systems (MCSs) supply a substantial portion of warm-season rainfall to the Great Plains of North America, and they are responsible for severe weather and flooding across the central United States. However, little is known about past behaviour and long-term drivers of these systems, limiting our ability to predict future extreme weather patterns in this region. Here, we generate a 20,000-year-long multiproxy record of storm intensity and hydroclimate variability from central Texas in the southern Great Plains and use transient climate model simulations to diagnose the dynamics of reconstructed changes in the climate of this region. We find that southern Great Plains storm intensity responded dynamically to external forcings associated with glacial boundary conditions and orbital forcing via changes in seasonal land surface warming. Springtime land surface warming steepens the zonal pressure gradient, producing an intensified southerly Great Plains low-level jet, enhancing southerly moisture transport and increasing springtime MCS intensity. Climate models predict a strengthening of the low-level jet in response to future warming, which our study suggests will lead to enhanced MCS activity and an increase in extreme weather across the Great Plains.

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Fig. 1: Proxy records generated in this study compared with the simulated evolution of the LLJ in the TraCE-21ka experiment.
Fig. 2: Deglacial hydroclimate change associated with ice-sheet ‘saddle collapse’.
Fig. 3: Insolation-driven changes in hydroclimate during the Holocene.

Data availability

All geochemical data generated for this study are available for download from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Centers for Environmental Information Paleoclimatology archive ( and are also available from the Supplementary Data file of the online version of this paper. Model outputs from the TraCE-21ka experiments, including full and single-forcing simulations, were downloaded from the Earth System Grid website (


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We thank C. Bell and E. Lundelius for discussions, and T. Wicks for assistance in fieldwork and data analysis. We thank T. D. Hall and B. Hall of Hall’s Ranch for access to the site. T.M.S. received partial support for this work from the National Science Foundation AGS1702271 and from a UT system-CONACYT collaborative research grant (ConTex grant no. 2017-33).

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Authors and Affiliations



T.M.S., N.P.M. and P.D.R. designed the study. T.M.S. facilitated and conducted the fieldwork. T.M.S. and C.S. conducted the laboratory work and analysed the data. C.S., P.N.D. and N.P.M. analysed the climate model output. T.M.S., C.S. and P.N.D. conducted the data–model analysis. T.M.S. and C.S. wrote the paper. C.S. created the figures. All authors contributed to editing the final version of the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Chijun Sun.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Peer review information Nature Geoscience thanks Tripti Bhattacharya and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work. Primary Handling Editor: James Super.

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

Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Age-depth model for Hall’s Cave sediment core.

Modeled age-depth relationship based on 37 AMS radiocarbon dates made primarily on bone collagen. The age-depth model is made using the Bayesian age-depth modeling program BACON50. Purple violin plots show the probability-density function for each calibrated radiocarbon age-estimate. The solid red line indicates the weighted mean of all possible chronologies. The grey-scale shading indicates uncertainties in modeled age depth relationships, and the dotted black lines indicate 95% confidence intervals.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Modern climatology and vegetation distribution in the southern Great Plains.

(a) Long-term (1981-2010) mean annual precipitation (MAP; mm/year). The circle indicates the location of Hall’s Cave. (b) The proportion of warm-season (March – October) precipitation relative to the annual total. Contours indicate March-October sea-level pressure, and vectors indicate March-October 850 hPa wind. (c) Monthly mean precipitation at the location of Hall’s Cave. Precipitation data is from Global Precipitation Analysis (GPCP). All other climatological data are from NCEP-NCAR Reanalysis 159. (d) Distribution of C4 vegetation across the region. Data from the International Satellite Land-Surface Climatology Project, Initiative II60. Secondary axis describes the distribution of δ13C values of terrestrial vegetation, calculated using a linear mixture model between C3 and C4 plants with endmember values of −27‰ and −9‰, respectively. Contours indicate elevation (meter).

Extended Data Fig. 3 Comparison between δ13COM, δ13Cwax, and a pollen record from Hall’s Cave showing strong correlations between each other.

(a) The percentage of tree and shrub pollen count15. (b) δ13COM and δ13Cwax. (c) Scatterplot of δ13COM vs. δ13Cwax. (d) Scatterplot of δ13COM vs. percentage of tree/shrub pollens.

Extended Data Fig. 4 Evolution of springtime North American climate over the last 20,000 years in TraCE-21ka.

(a-d) Simulated springtime climatology during (a) the Last Glacial Maximum with the southern Great Plains dominated by westerly wind, (b) post-saddle collapse with a greatly intensified LLJ, (c) mid-Holocene, and (d) pre-Industrial. Color shading indicates surface temperature. Contours indicate sea-level pressure. Vectors indicate 850 hPa wind. (e) Springtime 200 hPa zonal wind speed averaged within a longitudinal band (95°−103°W). The black line indicates the latitude of maximum U200 wind speed. (f) Springtime 200 hPa eddy kinetic energy (EKE) averaged within a longitudinal band (95°−103°W). (g) Springtime 200 hPa EKE over the southern Great Plains at 30°N. (h) The springtime Low-Level Jet index. (i) Springtime meridional moisture transport by the LLJ, calculated as the mean specific humidity (Q) multiplied by the LLJ index.

Extended Data Fig. 5 Changes in land surface conditions over North America induced by the ‘saddle collapse’ (11-13ka minus LGM).

(a) Changes in springtime surface temperature. (b) Changes in ice sheet thickness. (c) Changes in springtime reflected solar radiation (d) Changes in snow cover.

Extended Data Fig. 6 Synthesis of deglacial hydroclimate records in the central United States and northeastern Mexico showing a regionally consistent change towards wetter conditions.

(a) Map showing the sites of the records plotted in (b), which are labeled from (1) to (16). Star indicates the location of Hall’s Cave. (b) Hydroclimate records from the central U.S. showing wetter conditions during the last deglaciation. From north to south: (1) Zuehl Farm site61; (2) Crystal Lake27; (3) Colo Marsh61; (4) Brewster Creek62; (5) Nelson Lake63; (6) Appleman Lake28; (7) Chatsworth Bog63; (8) Illinois River Valley64; (9) Silver Lake65; (10) Muscotah Marsh66; (11) Cupola Pond29; (12) Aubrey Clovis site67; (13) Boriack Bog68; (14) Cave without a Name69; (15) Medina River70; (16) El Potosi30.

Extended Data Fig. 7 Comparison of deglacial climate changes simulated in TraCE full, ice sheet-only, and Freshwater forcing-only runs.

(a) Evolution of the springtime LLJ in the Full simulation. Light blue line is the decadal mean LLJ index calculated from the model output. Dark blue line is 500-yr moving average values of the LLJ index. The dashed line indicates the timing of the ice sheet ‘saddle collapse’ at 13.9 ka in the TraCE-21ka experiments. (b) Changes (11-13ka minus LGM) in the springtime 200 hPa (shadings) and 850 hPa (contours) eddy geopotential height in the TraCE full simulation. (c) Changes in the springtime surface temperature (shadings), sea-level pressure (contours), and 850 hPa wind. (d-f) Same as (a-c) but for the ice sheet-only single forcing simulation. (g-i) Same as (a-c) but for the freshwater forcing-only single forcing simulation.

Extended Data Fig. 8 Mid-Holocene climate change relative to the pre-Industrial in simulations from PMIP3 experiments (6 ka minus 0 ka).

Color shading indicates changes in surface temperature (°C). Contours indicate changes in sea-level pressure (hPa). Vectors indicate changes in 850 hPa winds (m/s).

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Text 1–7, Figs. 1 and 2, Table 1 and references.

Supplementary Data 1

Geochemical data generated for this study.

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Sun, C., Shanahan, T.M., DiNezio, P.N. et al. Great Plains storm intensity since the last glacial controlled by spring surface warming. Nat. Geosci. 14, 912–917 (2021).

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