Climate Change in the Desert

The El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and the North American Monsoon (NAM) play a large role in the weather in North America. In the summer, the NAM brings large-scale wind and rainfall to otherwise parched regions of the American Southwest and Mexico. The impacts of the NAM weather patterns extend throughout North America. Scientists fear climate change may cause the ENSO and NAM to slow down or even stop with dramatic implications to temperatures around the globe.

To understand the regional or “downscaled” impacts on the American Southwest and Department of Defense (DoD) infrastructure, a SERDP-funded pilot project led by Dr. Chris Castro is working to characterize how severe weather is changing. As the climate changes, the NAM is expected to increase temperature and aridity in the Southwest resulting in increased rainfall and flash flooding, dust storms, microbursts, and lightning. But what will that mean for DoD installation infrastructure in the region such as buildings, roads, runways and water drainages? 

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Dr. Castro and his team at the University of Arizona have developed a stepwise methodological approach to address how monsoon thunderstorms are presently changing and may continue to change in the future. Working in close partnership with the U.S. Air Force 25th Operational Weather Squadron in Arizona and the 14th Weather Squadron in North Carolina, the goal of the project is to develop facility-specific information on extreme monsoon weather and the best possible operational forecast decision criteria. With the project nearing conclusion, the team has gained a clearer physical picture of how monsoon thunderstorms are changing in association with anthropogenic climate change. This pilot project may serve as a future model for assessing the impact of climate change and severe weather on DoD installations around the globe.

Stay tuned for Dr. Castro’s final report which will be published on the SERDP project page ( RC-2205) in early 2017.

Photo Credit: Dr. Christopher Castro

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