A delay in the summer monsoon rains that fall over the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico is expected in the coming decades according to a new study in the Journal of Geophysical Research. The North American monsoon delivers as much as 70 percent of the region's annual rainfall, watering crops and rangelands for an estimated 20 million people.
"We hope this information can be used with other studies to build realistic expectations for water resource availability in the future," said study lead author, Benjamin Cook, a climate scientist with joint appointments at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.
Much of the arid U.S. Southwest is expected to get even drier as winter precipitation declines under climate change, but the present modeling study predicts that summer rain levels will stay constant over southern Arizona and New Mexico, and northwestern Mexico. What will shift is the arrival of the heaviest rains, from July and August or so, to September and October, the study says. "There still will be a healthy monsoon which is good news for agriculture in the southern U.S. and northwestern Mexico—the timing is the problem here," said study co-author Richard Seager, a climate scientist at Lamont-Doherty.
A delayed monsoon could potentially lower crop yields as rains come later in the growing season, when the days are getting shorter. By prolonging hot and dry conditions during spring, a late monsoon could also trigger more wildfires and force cities to stretch diminished water supplies. The study makes use of the latest climate change models (those used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its Fifth Assessment Report due out next fall), to estimate monthly changes in precipitation by the end of the century, 2080-2099. The researchers hypothesize that future warming will make it more difficult to form clouds and rainfall early in the monsoon when soils are dry, followed reduced winter rain and snowfall, thus delaying the onset of the monsoon rains until enough moisture can be moved in from the oceans.