Expansion and Intensification of the North American Monsoon During the Pliocene

Tripti Bhattacharya, Ran Feng, Jessica E. Tierney, Claire Rubbelke, Natalie Burls, Scott Knapp, Minmin Fu

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


Southwestern North America (SWNA), like many subtropical regions, is predicted to become drier in response to anthropogenic warming. However, during the Pliocene, when carbon dioxide was above pre-industrial levels, multiple lines of evidence suggest that SWNA was much wetter. While existing explanations for a wet Pliocene invoke increases in winter rain, recent modeling studies hypothesize that summer rain may have also played an important role. Here, we present the first direct evidence for an intensified mid-Pliocene monsoon in SWNA using leaf wax hydrogen isotopes. These new records provide evidence that the mid-Pliocene featured an intensified and expanded North American Monsoon. Using proxies and isotope-enabled model simulations, we show that monsoon intensification is linked to amplified warming on the southern California margin relative to the tropical Pacific. This mechanism has clear relevance for understanding present-day monsoon variations, since we show that intervals of amplified subtropical warming on the California margin, as are seen during modern California margin heat waves, are associated with a stronger monsoon. Because marine heat waves are predicted to increase in frequency, the future may bring intervals of “Pliocene-like” rainfall that co-exist with intensifying megadrought in SWNA, with implications for ecosystems, human infrastructure, and water resources.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2022AV000757
JournalAGU Advances
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 2022


  • North American Monsoon
  • Pliocene
  • hydroclimate
  • monsoon dynamics
  • southwestern North America

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Earth and Planetary Sciences


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