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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.

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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

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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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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Correspondence to Aiguo Dai.

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The author declares no competing financial interests.

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

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