Letter | Published:

Little change in global drought over the past 60 years

Nature volume 491, pages 435438 (15 November 2012) | Download Citation

Abstract

Drought is expected to increase in frequency and severity in the future as a result of climate change, mainly as a consequence of decreases in regional precipitation but also because of increasing evaporation driven by global warming1,2,3. Previous assessments of historic changes in drought over the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries indicate that this may already be happening globally. In particular, calculations of the Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI) show a decrease in moisture globally since the 1970s with a commensurate increase in the area in drought that is attributed, in part, to global warming4,5. The simplicity of the PDSI, which is calculated from a simple water-balance model forced by monthly precipitation and temperature data, makes it an attractive tool in large-scale drought assessments, but may give biased results in the context of climate change6. Here we show that the previously reported increase in global drought is overestimated because the PDSI uses a simplified model of potential evaporation7 that responds only to changes in temperature and thus responds incorrectly to global warming in recent decades. More realistic calculations, based on the underlying physical principles8 that take into account changes in available energy, humidity and wind speed, suggest that there has been little change in drought over the past 60 years. The results have implications for how we interpret the impact of global warming on the hydrological cycle and its extremes, and may help to explain why palaeoclimate drought reconstructions based on tree-ring data diverge from the PDSI-based drought record in recent years9,10.

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Acknowledgements

J.S. acknowledges support from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NA10OAR4310130, NA11OAR4310097) and NASA (NNX08AN40A). M.L.R. acknowledges the support of the Australian Research Council (DP0879763, DP110105376, CE11E0098).

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey 08544, USA

    • Justin Sheffield
    •  & Eric F. Wood
  2. Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science, Research School of Earth Science & Research School of Biology, The Australian National University, Canberra, ACT 0200, Australia

    • Michael L. Roderick

Authors

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Contributions

J.S. and E.F.W. conceived the study with inspiration from M.L.R. J.S. performed the analyses and mainly wrote the manuscript. E.F.W. and M.L.R. contributed to discussion and the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Justin Sheffield.

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    Supplementary Information

    This file contains Supplementary Text, Supplementary Figures 1-19, Supplementary Table 1 and Supplementary References.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/nature11575

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