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Climate of the Past An interactive open-access journal of the European Geosciences Union
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Volume 14, issue 8 | Copyright

Special issue: “Global Challenges for our Common Future: a paleoscience...

Clim. Past, 14, 1195-1212, 2018
https://doi.org/10.5194/cp-14-1195-2018
© Author(s) 2018. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Research article 15 Aug 2018

Research article | 15 Aug 2018

Drought and vegetation change in the central Rocky Mountains and western Great Plains: potential climatic mechanisms associated with megadrought conditions at 4200 cal yr BP

Vachel A. Carter1,2, Jacqueline J. Shinker3, and Jonathon Preece3 Vachel A. Carter et al.
  • 1RED Lab, Department of Geography, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT 84112, USA
  • 2Department of Botany, Charles University, Prague, 12801, Czech Republic
  • 3Department of Geography and Roy J. Shlemon Center for Quaternary Studies, University of Wyoming, Laramie, WY 82071, USA

Abstract. Droughts are a naturally re-occurring phenomena that result in economic and societal losses. Yet, the most historic droughts that occurred in the 1930s and 1950s in the Great Plains and western United States were both shorter in duration and less severe than megadroughts that have plagued the region in the past. Roughly 4200 years ago, a  ∼ 150-year long megadrought occurred in the central Rocky Mountains, as indicated by sedimentary pollen evidence documenting a brief and unique change in vegetation composition from Long Lake, southeastern Wyoming. Neighbouring the central Rocky Mountains, several dune fields reactivated in the western Great Plains around this time period illustrating a severe regional drought. While sedimentary pollen provides evidence of past drought, paleoecological evidence does not provide context for the climate mechanisms that may have caused the drought. Thus, a modern climate analogue technique was applied to the sedimentary pollen and regional dune reactivation evidence identified from the region to provide a conceptual framework for exploring possible mechanisms responsible for the observed ecological changes. The modern climate analogues of 2002/2012 illustrate that warm and dry conditions persisted through the growing season and were associated with anomalously higher-than-normal geopotential heights centred over the Great Plains. In the spring, higher-than-normal heights suppressed moisture transport via the low-level jet from the Gulf of Mexico creating a more southwesterly component of flow. In the summer, higher-than-normal heights persisted over the northern Great Plains resulting in a wind shift with an easterly component of flow, drawing in dry continental air into the study region. In both cases, lower-than-normal moisture in the atmosphere (via 850mbar specific humidity) inhibited uplift and potential precipitation. Thus, if the present scenario existed during the 4.2ka drought, the associated climatic responses are consistent with local and regional proxy data suggesting regional drought conditions in the central Rocky Mountains and western Great Plains.

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Between 4200 and 4000 cal yr BP, paleoecological evidence suggests a megadrought occurred in the central Rocky Mountains and western Great Plains. Modern climate analogues were used to explore potential climate mechanisms responsible for the ecological changes. Analogues illustrate that warm and dry conditions persisted through the growing season as a result of anomalously higher-than-normal heights centred over the Great Plains which suppressed moisture transport to the region.
Between 4200 and 4000 cal yr BP, paleoecological evidence suggests a megadrought occurred in the...
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