Implications of North Atlantic sea surface salinity for summer precipitation over the U.S. Midwest: Mechanisms and predictive value

Laifang Li, Raymond W. Schmitt, Caroline C. Ummenhofer, Kristopher B. Karnauskas

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

35 Scopus citations


Moisture originating from the subtropical North Atlantic feeds precipitation throughout the Western Hemisphere. This ocean-to-land moisture transport leaves its imprint on sea surface salinity (SSS), enabling SSS over the subtropical oceans to be used as an indicator of terrestrial precipitation. This study demonstrates that springtime SSS over the northwestern portion of the subtropical North Atlantic significantly correlates with summertime precipitation over the U.S. Midwest. The linkage between springtime SSS and the Midwest summer precipitation is established through ocean-to-land moisture transport followed by a soil moisture feedback over the southern United States. In the spring, high SSS over the northwestern subtropical Atlantic coincides with a local increase in moisture flux divergence. The moisture flux is then directed toward and converges over the southern United States, which experiences increased precipitation and soil moisture. The increased soil moisture influences the regional water cycle both thermodynamically and dynamically, leading to excessive summer precipitation in the Midwest. Thermodynamically, the increased soil moisture tends to moisten the lower troposphere and enhances the meridional humidity gradient north of 36°N. Thus, more moisture will be transported and converged into the Midwest by the climatological low-level wind. Dynamically, the increases in soil moisture over the southern United States enhance the west-east soil moisture gradient eastward of the Rocky Mountains, which can help to intensify the Great Plains low-level jet in the summer, converging more moisture into the Midwest. Owing to these robust physical linkages, the springtime SSS outweighs the leading SST modes in predicting the Midwest summer precipitation and significantly improves rainfall prediction in this region.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3143-3159
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Climate
Issue number9
StatePublished - May 1 2016

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Atmospheric Science


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