A 450-Year Perspective on California Precipitation “Flips”


Year-to-year extreme alterations in California (CA) precipitation, denoted here as flips, present significant challenges to resource managers, emergency management officials, and the state’s economy and ecosystems generally. We evaluate regional (north, central, and south) and statewide flip behavior since 1571 CE utilizing instrumental data and paleoclimate reconstructions. Flips, defined as dry-to-wet and wet-to-dry consecutive alterations between the tailward 30th percentiles of the precipitation distribution, have occurred throughout this period without indication of systematic change through the recent time of modern anthropogenic forcing. Statewide “grand flips” are notably absent between 1892 and 1957; bootstrap Monte Carlo analysis indicates that this feature is consistent with random behavior. Composites for northeastern Pacific Ocean winter sea level pressure and jet-stream winds associated with flip events indicate anomalous high or low pressure during the core precipitation delivery season for dry or wet flip years, respectively, and jet-stream conditions that are also like those associated with individual dry or wet years. Equatorial Pacific sea surface temperatures play a partial role in both dry-to-wet and wet-to-dry events in central and southern CA in the longer-period reconstruction data, with response restricted primarily to southern CA in the smaller sample-size instrumental data. Knowledge of a prior year extreme, potentially representing initiation of a flip, provides no enhancement of prediction quality for the second year beyond that achievable from skillful seasonal prediction of equatorial Pacific sea surface temperatures. Overall, results indicate that the first-order nature of flip behavior from the later 1500s reflects the quasi–white noise nature of precipitation variability in CA, influenced secondarily by equatorial Pacific sea surface conditions, particularly in southern CA.
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