The role of the subtropical North Atlantic water cycle in recent US extreme precipitation events

Laifang Li, Raymond W. Schmitt, Caroline C. Ummenhofer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

23 Scopus citations


The role of the oceanic water cycle in the record-breaking 2015 warm-season precipitation in the US is analyzed. The extreme precipitation started in the Southern US in the spring and propagated northward to the Midwest and the Great Lakes in the summer of 2015. This seasonal evolution of precipitation anomalies represents a typical mode of variability of US warm-season precipitation. Analysis of the atmospheric moisture flux suggests that such a rainfall mode is associated with moisture export from the subtropical North Atlantic. In the spring, excessive precipitation in the Southern US is attributable to increased moisture flux from the northwestern portion of the subtropical North Atlantic. The North Atlantic moisture flux interacts with local soil moisture which enables the US Midwest to draw more moisture from the Gulf of Mexico in the summer. Further analysis shows that the relationship between the rainfall mode and the North Atlantic water cycle has become more significant in recent decades, indicating an increased likelihood of extremes like the 2015 case. Indeed, two record-high warm-season precipitation events, the 1993 and 2008 cases, both occurred in the more recent decades of the 66 year analysis period. The export of water from the North Atlantic leaves a marked surface salinity signature. The salinity signature appeared in the spring preceding all three extreme precipitation events analyzed in this study, i.e. a saltier-than-normal subtropical North Atlantic in spring followed by extreme Midwest precipitation in summer. Compared to the various sea surface temperature anomaly patterns among the 1993, 2008, and 2015 cases, the spatial distribution of salinity anomalies was much more consistent during these extreme flood years. Thus, our study suggests that preseason salinity patterns can be used for improved seasonal prediction of extreme precipitation in the Midwest.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1291-1305
Number of pages15
JournalClimate Dynamics
Issue number3-4
StatePublished - Feb 1 2018

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Atmospheric Science


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