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High and Dry: Declining Precipitation in the Mountains of the Pacific Northwest

Trends in streamflow timing and volume in the Pacific Northwest United States have been attributed primarily to increased temperatures because trends in precipitation at lower elevation stations were negligible. We demonstrate that observed streamflow declines likely are associated with declines in mountain precipitation, revealing previously unexplored differential trends. Lower-troposphere winter (Nov-Mar) westerlies are strongly correlated to high elevation precipitation but weakly correlated with low elevation precipitation. Decreases in lower-tropospheric winter westerlies across the region from 1950-2012 are hypothesized to have reduced orographic precipitation enhancement, yielding differential trends in precipitation across elevations and contributing to the decline in annual streamflow. Climate projections show weakened lower troposphere zonal flow across the region under enhanced greenhouse forcing, highlighting an additional stressor relevant for climate change impacts on hydrology.