Factors contributing to record-breaking heat waves over the great plains during the 1930s Dust Bowl

Tim Cowan, Gabriele C. Hegerl, Ioana Colfescu, Massimo Bollasina, Ariaan Purich, Ghyslaine Boschat

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Record-breaking summer heat waves were experienced across the contiguous United States during the decade-long "Dust Bowl" drought in the 1930s. Using high-quality daily temperature observations, the Dust Bowl heat wave characteristics are assessed with metrics that describe variations in heat wave activity and intensity. Despite the sparser station coverage in the early record, there is robust evidence for the emergence of exceptional heat waves across the central Great Plains, the most extreme of which were preconditioned by anomalously dry springs. This is consistent with the entire twentieth-century record: summer heat waves over the Great Plains develop on average ~15-20 days earlier after anomalously dry springs, compared to summers following wet springs. Heat waves following dry springs are also significantly longer and hotter, indicative of the importance of land surface feedbacks in heat wave intensification. A distinctive anomalous continental-wide circulation pattern accompanied exceptional heat waves in the Great Plains, including those of the Dust Bowl decade. An anomalous broad surface pressure ridge straddling an upper-level blocking anticyclone over the western United States forced substantial subsidence and adiabatic warming over the Great Plains, and triggered anomalous southward warm advection over southern regions. This prolonged and amplified the heat waves over the central United States, which in turn gradually spread westward following heat wave emergence. The results imply that exceptional heat waves are preconditioned, triggered, and strengthened across the Great Plains through a combination of spring drought, upper-level continental-wide anticyclonic flow, and warm advection from the north.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2437-2461
Number of pages25
JournalJournal of Climate
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • Atmosphere-land interaction
  • Drought
  • Extreme events
  • Feedback
  • Heating
  • Synoptic-scale processes

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