Tree rings show recent high summer-autumn precipitation in northwest Australia is unprecedented within the last two centuries

Alison O'Donnell, E.R. Cook, J.G. Palmer, C.S.M. Turney, Gerald Page, Pauline Grierson

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    © 2015 O'Donnell et al. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. An understanding of past hydroclimatic variability is critical to resolving the significance of recent recorded trends in Australian precipitation and informing climate models. Our aim was to reconstruct past hydroclimatic variability in semi-arid northwest Australia to provide a longer context within which to examine a recent period of unusually high summer-autumn precipitation. We developed a 210-year ring-width chronology from Callitris columellaris, which was highly correlated with summer-autumn (Dec-May) precipitation (r = 0.81; 1910-2011; p <0.0001) and autumn (Mar-May) self-calibrating Palmer drought severity index (scPDSI, r = 0.73; 1910-2011; p <0.0001) across semi-arid northwest Australia. A linear regression model was used to reconstruct precipitation and explained 66% of the variance in observed summer-autumn precipitation. Our reconstruction reveals inter-annual to multi-decadal scale variation in hydroclimate of the region during the last 210 years, typically showing periods of below average precipitation extending from one to three decades and periods of above average precipitation, which were often less than a decade. Our results demonstrate that the last two decades (1995-2012) have been unusually wet (average summerautumn precipitation of 310 mm) compared to the previous two centuries (average summerautumn precipitation of 229 mm), coinciding with both an anomalously high frequency and intensity of tropical cyclones in northwest Australia and the dominance of the positive phase of the Southern Annular Mode.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)1-18
    JournalPLoS One
    Issue number6
    Publication statusPublished - 3 Jun 2015


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