Letter | Published:

Increasing drought under global warming in observations and models

Nature Climate Change volume 3, pages 5258 (2013) | Download Citation

  • An Erratum to this article was published on 29 January 2013

This article has been updated

Abstract

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.

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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).

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Acknowledgements

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.

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Affiliations

  1. National Center for Atmospheric Research, PO Box 3000, Boulder, Colorado 80307-3000, USA

    • Aiguo Dai
  2. The National Center for Atmospheric Research is sponsored by the US National Science Foundation

    • Aiguo Dai
  3. Address from 1 September 2012: Department of Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences, University at Albany, 1400 Washington Avenue, Albany, New York 12222, USA

    • Aiguo Dai

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The author declares no competing financial interests.

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Correspondence to Aiguo Dai.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate1633

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