Did a skillful prediction of sea surface temperatures help or hinder forecasting of the 2012 Midwestern US drought?

Jonghun Kam, Justin Sheffield, Xing Yuan, Eric F. Wood

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

28 Scopus citations


The latest drought to hit the Midwestern (MW) US region, in 2012, was driven by the least summer precipitation for the last three decades with $20 billion in agriculture losses. For 2012, the summer forecast skill for Pacific and Atlantic sea surface temperature (SST) anomalies and low MW precipitation is remarkably good for some National Multi-Model Ensemble (NMME) models, but this is not generally repeated for other drought years, with some models predicting extreme wet anomalies, despite skill in predicting Pacific and Atlantic SST anomalies. In order to diagnose the origins of the limited skill of the NMME models, we use singular value decomposition (SVD) for global SSTs and continental US (CONUS) precipitation from observational data and NMME hindcasts (1982-2012). Observational data indicate that there is an insignificant coupling between global SSTs and MW precipitation during summer over the last 30 years. However, the NMME climate forecast models show strong coupling and therefore predicted the 2012 drought fortuitously for the wrong reason (a strong pan-Pacific El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO)-like pattern). The observational data indicate that the strength of ENSO teleconnections with CONUS precipitation has weakened and the precipitation footprint has shifted over the past decades, suggesting that the transient nature of teleconnections may play a role in poor model skill.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number034005
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 2014

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Environment
  • General Environmental Science
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


  • NMME
  • midwest US drought
  • pacific SST teleconnections
  • singular value Decomposition


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