Ocean and land forcing of the record-breaking Dust Bowl heat waves across central United States

Tim Cowan, Gabi Hegerl, Andrew Schurer, Simon Tett, R. Vautard, P. Yiou, A. Jézéquel, F. E. Otto, I. J. Harrington, B. Ng

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

The severe drought of the 1930s Dust Bowl decade coincided with record-breaking summer heatwaves that contributed to the socio-economic and ecological disaster over North America’s Great Plains. It remains unresolved to what extent these exceptional heatwaves, hotter than in historically forced coupled climate model simulations, were forced by sea surface temperatures (SSTs) and exacerbated through human-induced deterioration of land cover. Here we show, using an atmospheric-only model, that anomalously warm North Atlantic SSTs enhance heatwave activity through an association with drier spring conditions resulting from weaker moisture transport. Model devegetation simulations, that represent the wide-spread exposure of bare soil in the 1930s, suggest human activity fueled stronger and more frequent heatwaves through greater evaporative drying in the warmer months. This study highlights the potential for the amplification of naturally occurring extreme events like droughts by vegetation feedbacks to create more extreme heatwaves in a warmer world.
Original languageEnglish
JournalNature Communications
Publication statusPublished - 8 Jun 2020


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