California margin temperatures modulate regional circulation and extreme summer precipitation in the desert Southwest

Tripti Bhattacharya, Ran Feng, Christopher R. Maupin, Sloan Coats, Peter R. Brennan, Elizabeth Carter

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


In August 2022, Death Valley, the driest place in North America, experienced record flooding from summertime rainfall associated with the North American monsoon (NAM). Given the socioeconomic cost of these type of events, there is a dire need to understand their drivers and future statistics. Existing theory predicts that increases in the intensity of precipitation is a robust response to anthropogenic warming. Paleoclimatic evidence suggests that northeast Pacific (NEP) sea surface temperature (SST) variability could further intensify summertime NAM rainfall over the desert southwest. Drawing on this paleoclimatic evidence, we use historical observations and reanalyzes to test the hypothesis that warm SSTs on the southern California margin are linked to more frequent extreme precipitation events in the NAM domain. We find that summers with above-average coastal SSTs are more favorable to moist convection in the northern edge of the NAM domain (southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, and the southern Great Basin). This is because warmer SSTs drive circulation changes that increase moisture flux into the desert southwest, driving more frequent precipitation extremes and increases in seasonal rainfall totals. These results, which are robust across observational products, establish a linkage between marine and terrestrial extremes, since summers with anomalously warm SSTs on the California margin have been linked to seasonal or multi-year NEP marine heatwaves. However, current generation earth system models (ESMs) struggle to reproduce the observed relationship between coastal SSTs and NAM precipitation. Across models, there is a strong negative relationship between the magnitude of an ESM’s warm SST bias on the California margin and its skill at reproducing the correlation with desert southwest rainfall. Given persistent NEP SST biases in ESMs, our results suggest that efforts to improve representation of climatological SSTs are crucial for accurately predicting future changes in hydroclimate extremes in the desert southwest.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number104048
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 1 2023


  • North American monsoon
  • extreme rainfall
  • southwest hydroclimate

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Environment
  • General Environmental Science
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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