Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

  • Letter
  • Published:

Increasing drought under global warming in observations and models

An Erratum to this article was published on 29 January 2013

This article has been updated


Historical records of precipitation, streamflow and drought indices all show increased aridity since 1950 over many land areas1,2. Analyses of model-simulated soil moisture3,4, drought indices1,5,6 and precipitation-minus-evaporation7 suggest increased risk of drought in the twenty-first century. There are, however, large differences in the observed and model-simulated drying patterns1,2,6. Reconciling these differences is necessary before the model predictions can be trusted. Previous studies8,9,10,11,12 show that changes in sea surface temperatures have large influences on land precipitation and the inability of the coupled models to reproduce many observed regional precipitation changes is linked to the lack of the observed, largely natural change patterns in sea surface temperatures in coupled model simulations13. Here I show that the models reproduce not only the influence of El Niño-Southern Oscillation on drought over land, but also the observed global mean aridity trend from 1923 to 2010. Regional differences in observed and model-simulated aridity changes result mainly from natural variations in tropical sea surface temperatures that are often not captured by the coupled models. The unforced natural variations vary among model runs owing to different initial conditions and thus are irreproducible. I conclude that the observed global aridity changes up to 2010 are consistent with model predictions, which suggest severe and widespread droughts in the next 30–90 years over many land areas resulting from either decreased precipitation and/or increased evaporation.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Access options

Buy this article

Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Figure 1: Trend maps for precipitation and sc_PDSI_pm and time series of percentage dry areas.
Figure 2: Future changes in soil moisture and sc_PDSI_pm.
Figure 3: Temporal and spatial patterns of the MCA2 mode for SST and sc_PDSI_pm from observations and models.
Figure 4: Temporal and spatial patterns of the MCA1 mode for SST and sc+PDSI_pm from observations and models.
Figure 5

Similar content being viewed by others

Change history

  • 22 January 2013

    In the version of this Letter originally published, in the sentence beginning "As SSTs have large influences on land precipitation…", the latitude range of sc_PDSI_pm included in the maximum covariance analysis should have read 60° S–75° N. This error has now been corrected in the HTML and PDF versions (note that the 'corrected after print' date in these online versions differs from that given in print).


  1. Dai, A. Drought under global warming: A review. WIREs Climatic Change 2, 45–65 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Dai, A. Characteristics and trends in various forms of the Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI) during 1900–2008. J. Geophys. Res. 116, D12115 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Wang, G. L. Agricultural drought in a future climate: Results from 15 global climate models participating in the IPCC 4th assessment. Clim. Dynam. 25, 739–753 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Sheffield, J. & Wood, E. F. Projected changes in drought occurrence under future global warming from multi-model, multi-scenario, IPCC AR4 simulations. Clim. Dynam. 31, 79–105 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Rind, D., Goldberg, R., Hansen, J., Rosenzweig, C. & Ruedy, R. Potential evapotranspiration and the likelihood of future drought. J. Geophys. Res. 95, 9983–10004 (1990).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Burke, E. J. & Brown, S. J. Evaluating uncertainties in the projection of future drought. J. Hydrometeorol. 9, 292–299 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Seager, R. et al. Model projections of an imminent transition to a more arid climate in southwestern North America. Science 316, 1181–1184 (2007).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  8. Giannini, A., Saravanan, R. & Chang, P. Oceanic forcing of Sahel rainfall on interannual to interdecadal time scales. Science 302, 1027–1030 (2003).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  9. Schubert, S. D., Suarez, M. J., Pegion, P. J., Koster, R. D. & Bacmeister, J. T. On the cause of the 1930s Dust Bowl. Science 303, 1855–1859 (2004).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  10. Seager, R., Kushnir, Y., Herweijer, C., Naik, N. & Velez, J. Modeling of tropical forcing of persistent droughts and pluvials over western North America: 1856–2000. J. Clim. 18, 4065–4088 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Hoerling, M., Hurrell, J., Eischeid, J. & Phillips, A. Detection and attribution of twentieth-century northern and southern African rainfall change. J. Clim. 19, 3989–4008 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Schubert, S. et al. A US CLIVAR project to assess and compare the responses of global climate models to drought-related SST forcing patterns: Overview and results. J. Clim. 22, 5251–5272 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Hoerling, M., Eischeid, J. & Perlwitz, J. Regional precipitation trends: Distinguishing natural variability from anthropogenic forcing. J. Clim. 23, 2131–2145 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Burke, E. J. Understanding the sensitivity of different drought metrics to the drivers of drought under increased atmospheric CO2 . J. Hydrometeorol. 12, 1378–1394 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Cook, E. R. et al. Asian monsoon failure and megadrought during the last millennium. Science 328, 486–489 (2010).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  16. van der Schrier, G., Briffa, K. R., Jones, P. D. & Osborn, T. J. Summer moisture variability across Europe. J. Clim. 19, 2818–2834 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Dai, A. G., Qian, T. T., Trenberth, K. E. & Milliman, J. D. Changes in continental freshwater discharge from 1948 to 2004. J. Clim. 22, 2773–2792 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Bretherton, C. S., Smith, C. & Wallace, J. M. An intercomparison of methods for finding coupled patterns in climate data. J. Clim. 5, 541–560 (1992).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Deser, C., Phillips, A. S. & Hurrell, J. W. Pacific interdecadal climate variability: Linkages between the tropics and the North Pacific during boreal winter since 1900. J. Clim. 17, 3109–3124 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Dai, A. & Wigley, T. M. L. Global patterns of ENSO-induced precipitation. Geophys. Res. Lett. 27, 1283–1286 (2000).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. IPCC Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007).

  22. Dai, A., Lamb, P. J., Trenberth, K. E., Hulme, M., Jones, P. D. & Xie, P. The recent Sahel drought is real. Int. J. Climatol. 24, 1323–13331 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Zeng, N., Neelin, J. D., Lau, K. M. & Tucker, C. J. Enhancement of interdecadal climate variability in the Sahel by vegetation interaction. Science 286, 1537–1540 (1999).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  24. Wang, G., Eltahir, E. A. B., Foley, J. A., Pollard, D. & Levis, S. Decadal variability of rainfall in the Sahel: results from the coupled GENESIS-IBIS atmosphere-biosphere model. Clim. Dynam. 22, 625–637 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Held, I. M., Delworth, T. L., Lu, J., Findell, K. L. & Knutson, T. R. Simulation of Sahel drought in the 20th and 21st centuries. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 102, 17891–17896 (2005).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  26. Ackerley, D et al. Sensitivity of twentieth-century Sahel rainfall to sulfate aerosol and CO2 forcing. J. Clim. 24, 4999–5014 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Cook, K.H. & Vizy, E. K. Coupled model simulations of the West African monsoon system: Twentieth- and twenty-first-century simulations. J. Clim. 19, 3681–3703 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Dai, A. The influence of the Inter-decadal Pacific Oscillation on US precipitation during 1923–2010. Clim. Dynam., revised; available from (2012).

  29. Rayner, N. A. et al. Global analyses of sea surface temperature, sea ice, and night marine air temperature since the late nineteenth century. J. Geophys. Res. 108, 4407 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Zhao, W. N. & Khalil, M. A. K. The relationship between precipitation and temperature over the contiguous United-States. J. Clim. 6, 1232–1236 (1993).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Brohan, P., Kennedy, J.J., Harris, I., Tett, S.F.B. & Jones, P.D. Uncertainty estimates in regional and global observed temperature changes: A new dataset from 1850. J. Geophys. Res. 111, D12106 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


The author is grateful to the modelling groups and the CMIP projects for making the model data available. This study was partly supported by NCAR’s Water Systems Program.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Aiguo Dai.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The author declares no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Information (PDF 1634 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Dai, A. Increasing drought under global warming in observations and models. Nature Clim Change 3, 52–58 (2013).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing