Articles | Volume 7, issue 3
Research article
13 Jul 2011
Research article |  | 13 Jul 2011

Implications of the permanent El Niño teleconnection "blueprint" for past global and North American hydroclimatology

A. Goldner, M. Huber, N. Diffenbaugh, and R. Caballero

Abstract. Substantial evidence exists for wetter-than-modern continental conditions in North America during the pre-Quaternary warm climate intervals. This is in apparent conflict with the robust global prediction for future climate change of a northward expansion of the subtropical dry zones that should drive aridification of many semiarid regions. Indeed, areas of expected future aridification include much of western North America, where extensive paleoenvironmental records are documented to have been much wetter before the onset of Quaternary ice ages. It has also been proposed that climates previous to the Quaternary may have been characterized as being in a state with warmer-than-modern eastern equatorial sea surface temperatures (SSTs). Because equatorial Pacific SSTs exert strong controls on midlatitude atmospheric circulation and the global hydrologic cycle, the teleconnected response from this permanent El Niño-like mean state has been proposed as a useful analogue model, or "blueprint", for understanding global climatological anomalies in the past. The present study quantitatively explores the implications of this blueprint for past climates with a specific focus on the Miocene and Pliocene, using a global climate model (CAM3.0) and a nested high-resolution climate model (RegCM3) to study the hydrologic impacts on global and North American climate of a change in mean SSTs resembling that which occurs during modern El Niño events. We find that the global circulation response to a permanent El Niño resembles a large, long El Niño event. This state also exhibits equatorial super-rotation, which would represent a fundamental change to the tropical circulations. We also find a southward shift in winter storm tracks in the Pacific and Atlantic, which affects precipitation and temperature over the mid-latitudes. In addition, summertime precipitation increases over the majority of the continental United States. These increases in precipitation are controlled by shifts in the subtropical jet and secondary atmospheric feedbacks. Based on these results and the data proxy comparison, we conclude that a permanent El Niño like state is one potential explanation of wetter-than-modern conditions observed in paleoclimate-proxy records, particularly over the western United States.