During the termination of the last glacial period the western U.S. experienced exceptionally wet conditions, driven by changes in location and strength of the mid-latitude winter storm track. The distribution of modern winter precipitation is frequently characterized by a north-south wet/dry dipole pattern, controlled by interaction of the storm track with ocean-atmosphere conditions over the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Here we show that a dipole pattern of similar geographic extent persisted and switched sign during millennial-scale abrupt climate changes of the last deglaciation, based on a new lake level reconstruction for pluvial Lake Chewaucan (northwestern U.S.), and a compilation of regional paleoclimate records. This suggests the dipole pattern is robust, and one mode may be favored for centuries, thereby creating persistent contrasting wet/dry conditions across the western U.S. The TraCE-21k climate model simulation shows an equatorward enhancement of winter storm track activity in the northeastern Pacific, favoring wet conditions in southwestern U.S. during the second half of Heinrich Stadial 1 (16.1–14.6 ka) and consistent with paleoclimate evidence. During the Bølling/Allerød (14.6–12.8 ka), the northeastern Pacific storm track contracted poleward, consistent with wetter conditions concentrated poleward toward the northwest U.S.
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