Origins of the 1988 North American Drought

Science  23 Dec 1988:
Vol. 242, Issue 4886, pp. 1640-1645
DOI: 10.1126/science.242.4886.1640


The 1988 summer drought in the United States was the most extensive in many years. Because the drought developed in different places at different times, not all regional effects can be traced to the same cause. Along the West Coast and in the northwestern United States drought conditions developed during 1987 in association with the 1986 to 1987 El Niño in the tropical Pacific Ocean. Record low rainfalls from April to June 1988 led to rapid development of drought in the North Central United States. Strong anticyclonic conditions and a northward displaced jet stream in the upper atmosphere over North America throughout this period were only part of pronounced and distinctive wavetrain of anomalies in the atmospheric circulation that appeared to emanate from the tropical Pacific. Below average sea surface temperatures along the equator in the Pacific in the northern spring of 1988, combined with warmer than normal water from 10° to 20°N, led to a northward displaced but still active intertropical convergence zone (ITCZ) southeast of Hawaii. Results from a steady-state planetarywave atmospheric model indicate that the atmospheric heating anomalies associated with the displaced ITCZ can force an anomalous wavetrain across North America similar to that observed. Land surface processes probably contributed to the severity and persistence of the drought; however, the large-scale atmospheric circulation perturbations associated with natural variations in the coupled atmosphere-ocean system in the tropical Pacific were most likely the primary cause.