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Disaster Management Center; 432 North Luke Street, University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin 53 706-1498, USA
Received I May 1995
Accepted 3 Januav 1996
The valley of Oaxaca is an important agricultural centre in the highlands of southern Mexico. Precipitation is a major control
on rain-fed agriculture. Daily, monthly, and annual precipitation in the valley of Oaxaca are linked synoptically to distinct
meso- and large-scale patterns of atmospheric pressure and temperature. During the summer rainy season, daily precipitation in
the valley coincides with lower atmospheric pressures over Mexico. Anomalous lows increase convergence and draw maritime
air landward. From June through to September, monthly average 850 hPa level temperatures in the MexiccdJSA border region
are consistently higher during the valley's wettest years compared with dry years. This link with atmospheric temperatures in
the border region suggests that precipitation in the valley of Oaxaca is affected by variations in the Mexico monsoon, a tongue
of maritime air that is drawn up the Mexican west coast and into the south-west USA during summer. Precipitation in the valley
of Oaxaca also varies according to the frequency and position of tropical storms and hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico and
Pacific Ocean. Significant correlations between precipitation in the valley and storm frequency occur during August and
September. Finally, El NiibSouthem Oscillation (ENSO) warm events are associated with dry conditions in the valley owing
to a southward displacement of the Inter Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) during the low phase of the Southern Oscillation
and diminished storm frequency in the Gulf of Mexico.
Oaxaca; southern Mexico; synoptic climatology; Mexican monsoon; El Niiio-Southern Oscillation (ENSO); rainfall
Previous investigations into controls on precipitation in southern Mexico have tended to be regional, examining the
effects of a single climatic phenomenon over spatially extensive areas. A summer monsoon was identified as a
source of moisture transport and precipitation in Mexico by Hales (1 974) and further documented by Garcia and
Mosiiio (1990) and Douglas et al. (1993). The impact of the extremes of the Southern Oscillation (El Niiio and nonEl Niiio events) on the climate of southern Mexico have been assessed by Cavazos and Hastenrath (1990), Rogers
(1988), Aceituno (1988), and Kiladis and Diaz (1993).
This study uses a synoptic approach to examine the interaction of several meso- and large-scale atmospheric
controls on precipitation at a single location. The valley of Oaxaca is located at the centre of the state of Oaxaca in
the highlands of southern Mexico. At approximately 17"N and 97"W, the valley is situated in the transition belt
between the tropics and extratropics. Precipitation seasonality and interannual variation in the valley are modulated
by monsoonal effects from the North American land-mass, tropical storms in the Gulf of Mexico and Pacific Ocean,
and El Niiio-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) events. High altitude ( 1 500 m above sea-level at the valley floor) and
CCC 0899-8418/96/09-1019-13
0 1996 by the Royal Meteorological Society
rugged topography also influence precipitation, the latter through rain-shadow effects from mountain ranges to the
north-east, south-west and south, rising to over 3000 m above sea-level (Figure 1).
The largest expanse of flat land in Mexico's southern highlands, the valley of Oaxaca is an important agricultural
centre with a history spanning over 3000 years. Interannual variations in summer growing-season precipitation
greatly affect agriculture. Most cropland is rain-fed and insufficient rainfall causes harvest failure one year in four
(Kirkby, 1973). In this study, seasonal and interannual variations in precipitation are explained by examining their
synoptic controls. A moderately strong ENS0 precipitation teleconnection may ultimately offer some predictive
capabilities for agricultural planning, through advances in ENS0 forecasting (see Cane et al; 1986).
Gridded pressure and temperature data were obtained from the United States National Meteorological Center
(NMC). The grid consists of 1977 equally spaced points on a solar stereographic projection centred over the North
Pole and extending down as far as 9"N latitude, south of Mexico (University of Washington, 1990). Daily and
monthly values of sea-level pressure (SLP) and 850, 700, and 500 hPa geopotential heights are computed from
NMC final analysis tapes for each grid-point. The SLP values for stations above sea-level, such as those in Oaxaca
and throughout much of Mexico, are calculated based on the assumed characteristics of a hypothetical column of air
extending from the station elevation to sea-level. The resulting SLPs provide a standardized surface-pressure grid,
with the effect of elevation removed, for Mexico and surrounding ocean areas. The SLP and 500 hPa data were
Figure 1. Orographic effects on annual rainfall (mm) in Mexico and the valley of Oaxaca, from Arbingast et al. (1 975, p. 17) and Kirkby
(1973, p. 19)
available from 1946 to 1988,850 and 700 hPa from 1963. A window around Mexico extending from 40"N to1O"N
latitude and 130"W to 60"W longitude was selected from the larger grid.
Precipitation data for the valley of Oaxaca came from two sources. From the Mexican National Meteorological
Service, monthly precipitation data were available from 1878 through to 1990, albeit with some interruptions, for
Oaxaca de Juirez, the state capital located in the centre of the valley. In addition to the long-term record from the
Oaxaca de Juarez station, a shorter record of daily precipitation for three other stations was obtained from the
records of the Secretariat of Agriculture and Water Resources in Oaxaca de Juarez. These stations (Etla, Ocotlh,
and Tlacolula), represent each of the three arms of the valley (see Figure 1). Monthly totals from these stations were
averaged together with monthly total precipitation from the Oaxaca de Juhrez airport to obtain a monthly
precipitation average for the entire valley from 1978 to 1990. Because this average includes one station from
each of the valley arms, it captures a degree of spatial precipitation variation, an important consideration in an area
where it can be raining at one location but not raining at another several kilometres away. The valley-average
precipitation is affected by missing data for some stations, especially from 1986 to 1990.
Tropical storm and hurricane tracks in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans were digitized on to a 5" x 5" grid for
the years 1956 to 1990 from the Mariners Weather Log ( U S Department of Commerce, 1956-1990). Additional
storm data was provided by the Mexican National Secretariat of Agriculture and Water Resources (SARH, 1988).
The rainy season in the valley of Oaxaca begins during April and May and peaks during June (Figure 2). In July and
August a mid-season dry period occurs. This period, during which the Canis Mujor constellation appears in the
morning sky, is known as the canicula. In September, rainfall rises again to a second, lesser peak before falling off
rapidly during October. Rainfall during the winter dry season is negligible, caused by occasional cold fronts which
push down into southern Mexico from the extratropics (Dimego et al; 1976, p. 71 1). The six months from May
through to October receive 90 per cent of average annual precipitation, and 72 per cent of average annual
precipitation falls between June and September.As indicated by monthly precipitation standard deviations in Figure
2, there is considerable interannual variation around monthly averages. Peak temperatures occur during April and
May (22"C), after which they drop because of evaporative cooling and enhanced cloud cover during the rainy
Stations in all three arms of the valley conform to these general seasonal patterns, although total annual rainfall
differs among them due to orographic effects (visible in Figure 1 inset). Most of the valley has a steppe climate (BS
Mean T= 20.6 C, Mean Total P= 685.1 rnm
- 20
.g 100
- Temp. Std. Dev.
Precip. Std. Dev.
Figure 2. Average annual temperature and precipitation at the Oaxaca de Juhrez weather station, 1878-1990 ('Oaxaca' in Figure 1 inset)
in the Koppen classification), with the exception of the southern arm,where Ocotlin is located, which is Cw
(temperate, dry winter). Some areas in the south almost qualify as Aw (tropical wet-and-dry, dry winter) except for a
shortage of summer rainfall. The north Etla and central Oaxaca de Juirez areas are closer to Cw climates than the
drier eastern (Tlacolula) arm (Lorenzo, 1960, pp. 53-54).
The noon sun is directly overhead in Oaxaca twice a year: on 8 May and again on 6 August. The June and
September seasonal precipitation maxima therefore each occur 1 month after a solar zenith. Because the latitudinal
position of the thermal equator and ITCZ tends to lag behind the latitude of declination by a month, it is tempting to
explain the June and September precipitation maxima as no more than the product of convection within the zone of
maximum atmospheric heating. This simple explanation, however, must be supplemented with an examination of
the roles played by convergence,moisture transport, and tropical disturbances in determining Oaxaca’s precipitation
seasonality and interannual variability.
Oaxaca is influenced by circulatory regimes that bring precipitable moisture on to the continent from both the
Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean. Were it not for the mountains rising from the coastal plain north-east of the
state, easterly flow from the Gulf would be easily the dominant atmospheric control on precipitation seasonality in
the valley. During winter, when dry conditions prevail in Oaxaca, the upper air flow is westerly and surface high
pressure over the USA sends cold, dry continental air from there down across Mexico. By June the westerly flow
abates aloft over southern Mexico and the surface flow over most of the country becomes decidedly easterly. The
Bermuda high-pressure system becomes established over the South Atlantic (Figure 3(a)). The Bermuda High
pushes moist air from the Gulf into a thermal surface trough over Mexico, providing a moisture source for Oaxaca
precipitation. Much of the water vapour carried at lower levels, however, rains out before reaching the valley, on the
Figure 3. June mean SLP (a) and July mean 500 hPa geopotential heights (b), 1946-1988
eastern slopes of the Sierra Madre de Oaxaca mountains rising from the Gulf coastal plain in Veracruz to the northeast (see isohyets in Figure 1). Only moisture at levels above these mountains penetrates into the plateau region
where the valley is located. During winter, a thermal inversion prevents virtually all upper-air moisture transport and
contributes to winter dryness on the plateau. In summer, the inversion disappears (Gutnick, 1958, p. 41 1) and water
evaporated over the Gulf can be carried further aloft. Heating of the plateau surface often produces temperatures
exceeding those over the Gulf at the same altitude, a phenomenon known as the elevated heat source effect (Mosiiio
and Garcia, 1974, p. 353). When the incoming Gulf air passing over the plateau encounters the elevated heat-source,
convective lifting causes precipitation. The elevated heat-source effect and predominant easterly flow combine
during June to produce the first seasonal precipitation maximum in the valley of Oaxaca. The passage of easterly
waves in the 700 hPa wind-field provides a trigger of atmospheric instability, lifting the air at their crests and
producing precipitation in their wake (Jackson, 1989, p. 27) with an approximate 5-day periodicity.
In July and August, during the cuniculu, average monthly precipitation decreases from June levels, producing a
mid-season dry period. During July the subtropical high-pressure system becomes spatially extensive at the 500 hPa
level and splits into two centres, one over Bermuda and the other over Texas separated by a trough stretching from
Florida to the Yucatan peninsula (Figure 3(b)). In July, easterly flow from the southern Atlantic swings slightly
northward following the curve of the isobars, reducing moisture transport and the frequency of easterly waves over
Mexico (Mosiiio and Garcia, 1974, p. 377). At the same time, relatively high pressure aloft over the border region
circulates dry, subsiding continental air southward over the eastern half of the country (Mosiiio and Reyna-Trujillo,
1989). Weather stations on the east side of Mexico, for which the moisture supply comes predominantly from the
Gulf, experience a decline in rainfall during July and August (Garcia et ul., 1989). The valley of Oaxaca is among
the locations that experiences an average precipitation decline during these months. With the diversion of easterly
waves, moisture from the Pacific side becomes increasingly important for precipitation in Oaxaca. Reaching its apex
in July and August, a tongue of moist maritime air intrudes up the Mexican west coast (Garcia and Mosiiio, 1990),
the effects of which on annual precipitation are visible in Figure 1. This tongue is drawn northward into the thermal
low over the USA-Mexico border in monsoon fashion (Hales, 1974; Douglas et ul., 1993).
Both easterly flow and the Mexican monsoon abate during September as winter conditions gradually return.
Nonetheless, a secondary maximum occurs in Oaxaca’s precipitation record during that month. Accumulated
summer warming of tropical ocean waters provides energy for increased storm formation. Tropical storms and
hurricanes provide mid-tropospheric disturbances that trigger atmospheric instability. These disturbances can cause
rainfall to occur over the Mexican plateau even when the storm remains far from the coast. The fact that cyclones and
hurricanes affecting the Mexican coast are more than twice as frequent during September than in any other month
(SAW, 1988) partially explains the second, September, precipitation maximum.
Within the valley of Oaxaca itself, orographic influences affect the spatial distribution of precipitation. For
example, the Tlacolula valley arm is drier than areas to the west because it is in the rain shadow of the Sierra Madre
de Oaxaca mountains (Figure 1 inset).
Local convection can result in heavy rains in one part of the valley while the sun shines a short distance away.
Spatial variability of rainfall within the valley has important implications for long-term climate analyses in the
valley. A long-term record exists only for a single station at Oaxaca de Juirez. The valley’s rainfall spatial variability
is better accounted for in recent years, when an average precipitation figure for four valley stations can be computed.
The average seasonal distribution of Oaxaca’s monthly precipitation masks considerable interannual variation.
Seasonal differences between groups of years can be illustrated by classifying them according to the similarity of
their seasonal precipitation profiles based on a cluster analysis using Ward’s method. The input to the analysis
consisted of the 12 monthly rainfall totals for each year in the record from 1878 through to 1990 at the Oaxaca de
Juarez station. Years with similar seasonal rainfall patterns, particularly during May through to October when
rainfall variation is greatest, cluster together. Seven clusters were judged optimal, based on the ratio of within- to
between-clustervariation. Average monthly precipitation for each cluster, or rainy season type, is shown in Figure 4.
Three of the types occurred frequently, accounting for 76 per cent of the years (Figure 4(a)). The others accounted
for the remaining 24 per cent (Figure 4(b)). The three frequently occurring types resemble the average seasonal
precipitation profile. The four infrequent types represent years when the usual bimodal pattern of June and
September maxima was disrupted, probably due to shifts in timing of the seasonal atmospheric controls. The
sequencing of rain-season types shows that the more frequent types 1 to 3 often persist over several years (Figure 5).
Interestingly, infrequent types 4 to 7 have become more frequent since 1960. There is less persistence of types over
multiple years since then as well. This confirms reports by older valley residents that rainfall is less 'reliable' in
recent years than it was in their youth (Dilley, 1993).
Precipitation variability in Oaxaca is related to changes in meso- and large-scale atmospheric pressure, which are
in turn linked to moisture convergence,as discussed previously. Composite pressure anomalies comparing 358 rainy
versus 706 dry days in the valley show that SLP and 500 hPa geopotential heights tend to be lower over the northcentral Mexican plateau and in the Gulf on days when precipitation falls in the valley (Figure 6). Locally, in a
comparison of two years-I98 1, which was very wet in Oaxaca, versus 1982, which was extremely dry-average
SLP and 500 hPa geopotential heights for the four NMC grid-points closest to the valley show a similar relationship
to precipitation (Figure 7). The SLP values are generally higher during the drought year of 1982 throughout most
months of the rainy season, as are 500 hPa geopotential heights. Note that in months where the the pressure was
I +Type 1 (35%)
Type 2 (14%)
Type 3 (27%)
Type 4 (5%) -I- Type 5 (6%)
Type 6 (9%) +- Type 7 (4%)
Figure 4. Oaxaca de Juice2 station monthly average precipitation for frequently occurring (a) and infrequently occurring (b) rainy season types
higher in 1981, as occurred at the 500 hPa level during June, the rainfall in 1981 was correspondingly lower (Figure
Interannual variations in Oaxaca's monthly precipitation coincide with variations in atmospheric temperatures
over the USA-Mexico border region. This relationship is visible in composites comparing monthly 850 hPa
atmospheric temperatures from the wettest and driest quartiles of years from 1962 through to 1988 (based on
monthly precipitation at Oaxaca de Juiuez). A similar pattern distinguishes wet from dry years: the air at 850 hPa is
1-3°C warmer over the north-central plateau during wet years in Oaxaca during June through to September (Figure
Figure 6. Composite gridded SLP (a) and 500 hPa geopotential height (b) anomalies for days with spatially extensive precipitation in the valley
of Oaxaca compared with days without precipitation from 1978 to 1990. Days with spatially extensive precipitation are those during which more
than 1 cm of precipitation at all four stations (Etla, Oaxaca, Ocotlh, and Tlacolula). Dry days are those during which no precipitation was
recorded at any of the four stations. Each composite shows the average grid-point values for wet days minus those for dry days.
1981 Rain
- 1981 500 mcm 1982 Rain
1982 500 mb
Figure 7. Oaxaca Valley monthly average SLP (a), 500 hPa geopotential height (b) and precipitation for a wet (1981) versus a dry year (1982)
8). The difference is especially pronounced and spatially extensive during August, when the Mexican monsoon
reaches its peak. Further work needs to be undertaken, however, to determine specifically how 850 hPa borderregion temperatures relate to the development and strength of the Mexican monsoon.
Variation in frequency, duration, and position of tropical storms and hurricanes also affects precipitation in the
valley of Oaxaca. The fiequencyof tropical storms digitized on to a 5" x 5" grid for the years 1956-1 990 was used to
predict monthly precipitation at the Oaxaca de Juhrez station in a regression analysis. Storm positions are recorded at
12-h intervals, and the number of 12-h segments of storm track occumng in each grid-cell each month was used as
the independent variable. Storm frequency correlations with Oaxaca precipitation from 1956 to 1990 are strongest
during August (Figure 9(a)). During this month a belt of significantlypositive correlations materializes between 10"
and 25"N latitude. This belt correspondsto the passage of easterly waves, which both stimulate storm formation and
trigger convection in Oaxaca. Significantpositive correlationsoccur in the Pacific as well. In September, the highest
correlations are found in the grid-cells on the Mexican coast adjacent to Oaxaca (Figure 9(b)). As easterly flow
Figure 8. Composite June (a), July (b), August (c), and September (d) gridded 850 hPa geopotential height temperature composites comparing
the six wettest years (quartile) with the six driest in the valley of Oaxaca from 1962 to 1988. Each composite shows the average grid-point values
for wet-quartile months minus those for dry-quartile months.
abates during September, easterly waves become less influential and those storms that are proximate to Oaxaca are
the ones with the greatest effect on precipitation.
Precipitation in the valley of Oaxaca is also influenced by ENSO. Low values of the Southern Oscillation Index
(S0I)-SLP in Tahiti minus that in Darwin, Australia-tend to be associated with dry conditions in the valley.
When the SO1 is high, July-September precipitation is greater in southern Mexico than it is during the low phase
(Rogers, 1988, p. 173). Cavazos and Hastenrath (1990) note that May-October precipitation, averaged over several
stations in the state of Oaxaca from 1966 to 1987, correlates with the July-August average of the SO1 at 0.38. A
survey of droughts reported during El Niiio years reveals a tendency towards drought in Central America,
occasionally affecting southern Mexico (Glantz et al., 1987). Drier than average conditions over southern
Mexico occur during years when the SO1 changes sign from positive to negative and when central and eastern
equatorial Pacific SST anomalies become strongly positive (Kiladis and Diaz, 1993).
In the valley of Oaxaca, ENSO warm events during the twentieth century, as identified by Kiladis and Diaz
(1 989), are associated with higher than normal May precipitation, but with lower than normal precipitation during
August and September (Figure 10).For the period 1978-1 990, when average precipitation for four valley stations is
available, the correlation between MayyOctober SO1 and precipitation over that period is 0.74. The correlation with
the single Oaxaca de Juhrez station over the same period is lower, at 0.4 1 . For 29 years classified as strong or
Figure 8. Continued.
moderate El Niiios by Quinn et al. (1987), from 1889 to 1990,41 per cent of El Niiio years fell into the driest total
annual precipitation quartile from Oaxaca de Juarez, significant at the 5 per cent level.
El Niiio years are characterized by a decrease in western Atlantic hurricane activity (Gray, 1984). Humcane
influence on Oaxaca precipitation is highest during August and September, so less frequent humcanes associated
with ENSO warm events helps explain decreased precipitation in Oaxaca during these months. In contrast,
northward displacement of the ITCZ during high SO1 years (Cavazos and Hastenrath, 1990) extends the period
during which Oaxaca is under its influence, contributing to higher precipitation in the valley in non-El Niiio years.
The Mexican monsoon is not affected appreciably by ENSO (Kiladis and Diaz, 1993).
Precipitation seasonality and interannual variation in the valley of Oaxaca are influenced by several synoptic
controls. Although one control may dominate during a given month, all influence precipitation to some degree
throughout the summer rainy season.
The seasonal average precipitation maximum in June is primarily a function of convergence of maritime air into
southern Mexico, initiated by a thermal trough that develops over north-central Mexico and the south-west USA
Figure 9. Correlation between gridded 12-h storm frequencies and both August (a) and September (b) rainfall in the valley of Oaxaca, 19561990 (*indicates significance at 0.05 level)
during May and June. During July and August the Mexican monsoon reaches its maximum extent but precipitation
in Oaxaca declines, perhaps because the border-region thermal trough is slightly weaker in these months. A
secondary seasonal average precipitation maximum occurs in September, when both the monsoon and easterly flow
are diminished, owing to the high number of tropical cyclones and hurricanes affecting the Mexican coast. These
storms are associated with atmospheric disturbances that trigger instability and precipitation in Oaxaca.
Precipitation interannual variability coincides with fluctuations in temperatures at the 850 hPa level over the
USA-Mexican border. These temperatures are consistently several degrees higher during the wettest quartile months
in Oaxaca than they are during the months in the driest quartile. Although the position of the centre of 850 hPa
heating over the border-region suggests that this phenomenon is related to the Mexican monsoon, a complete
physical explanation is currently lacking. Tropical cyclone and hurricane frequency in both the Gulf of Mexico and
the Pacific Ocean correlate positively with Oaxaca precipitation, primarily during August and September. The
reduction in the frequency of Gulf hurricanes during ENS0 warm events suggests why these events tend to be
associated with dry conditions in the valley during the latter part of the rainy season. In contrast, the ITCZ is
displaced northward during high SOI-ENSO cold phases, which contributes to more prolonged convection over
Oaxaca and increased rainfall during non-El Niiio years.
-Warm SST years --
Cold SST years
Figure 10. Precipitation anomalies at Oaxaca de Juhrez for twentieth century warm and cold SST-ENS0 event years and year + 1. The monthly
anomalies for both warm and cold SST years were smoothed with a 3-month running mean according to the methodology presented in Bradley
et al. (1987; in Kiladis and Dim, 1993).
The author wishes to thank Diana M. Liverman for her generous support of this research through her US National
Science Foundation grant for the study of drought and agriculture in Mexico. Tereza Cavazos and Henry Diaz made
many helpful suggestions that improved an earlier draft. Michael W. Douglas and an anonymous reviewer provided
thoughtful criticisms and comments during the final revision. Any errors or misinterpretations of the data are the
responsibility of the author.
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