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:

Keeping global warming within 1.5 °C constrains emergence of aridification


Aridity—the ratio of atmospheric water supply (precipitation; P) to demand (potential evapotranspiration; PET)—is projected to decrease (that is, areas will become drier) as a consequence of anthropogenic climate change, exacerbating land degradation and desertification1,2,3,4,5,6. However, the timing of significant aridification relative to natural variability—defined here as the time of emergence for aridification (ToEA)—is unknown, despite its importance in designing and implementing mitigation policies7,8,9,10. Here we estimate ToEA from projections of 27 global climate models (GCMs) under representative concentration pathways (RCPs) RCP4.5 and RCP8.5, and in doing so, identify where emergence occurs before global mean warming reaches 1.5 °C and 2 °C above the pre-industrial level. On the basis of the ensemble median ToEA for each grid cell, aridification emerges over 32% (RCP4.5) and 24% (RCP8.5) of the total land surface before the ensemble median of global mean temperature change reaches 2 °C in each scenario. Moreover, ToEA is avoided in about two-thirds of the above regions if the maximum global warming level is limited to 1.5 °C. Early action for accomplishing the 1.5 °C temperature goal can therefore markedly reduce the likelihood that large regions will face substantial aridification and related impacts.

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

Fig. 1: Spatial distributions of the aridity index and related climate regime in present climate, and regime changes if the aridity index decreases by 0.5N.
Fig. 2: Spatial distributions of multi-model ensemble median year of ToEA and the 16–84% range.
Fig. 3: Spatial distributions of regions with ToEA ≤ t 1.5 and t 1.5 < ToEA ≤ t 2, and proportions of GCM simulations that show t 1.5, t 2 and ToEA in each particular year.
Fig. 4: Total area and present-day population count over regions with ToEA ≤ t 1.5 and ToEA ≤ t 2 under the RCP4.5 and RCP8.5 scenarios.

Similar content being viewed by others


  1. Collins, M. et al. Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis (eds Stocker, T. F. et al.) (IPCC, Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, UK, 2013).

  2. Huang, J., Yu, H., Guan, X., Wang, G. & Guo, R. Accelerated dryland expansion underclimate change. Nat. Clim. Change 6, 166–171 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Feng, S. & Fu, Q. Expansion of global drylands under a warming climate. Atmos. Chem. Phys. 13, 10081–10094 (2013).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  4. Sherwood, S. & Fu, Q. A drier future? Science 343, 737–739 (2014).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  5. Lin, L., Gettelman, A., Fu, Q. & Xu, Y. Simulated differences in 21st century aridity due to different scenarios of greenhouse gases and aerosols. Climatic Change (2016).

  6. Fu, Q., Lin, L., Huang, J., Feng, S. & Gettelman, A. Changes in terrestrial aridity for the period 850–2080 from the Community Earth System Model. J. Geophys. Res. Atmos. 121, 2857–2873 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Mahlstein, I., Knutti, R., Solomon, S. & Portmann, R. W. Early onset of significant local warming in low latitude countries. Environ. Res. Lett. 6, 034009 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Hawkins, E. & Sutton, R. The potential to narrow uncertainty in projections of regional precipitation change. Clim. Dyn. 37, 407–418 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Hawkins, E. & Sutton, R. Time of emergence of climate signals. Geophys. Res. Lett. 39, L01702 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. King, A. D. et al. The timing of anthropogenic emergence in simulated climate extremes. Environ. Res. Lett. 10, 094015 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Middleton, N. et al. World Atlas of Desertification. 2nd edn (Arnold, London, 1997).

    Google Scholar 

  12. Mosley, L. M. Drought impacts on the water quality of freshwater systems; review and integration. Earth Sci. Rev. 140, 203–214 (2015).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  13. Westerling, A. L., Hidalgo, H. G., Cayan, D. R. & Swetnam, T. W. Warming and earlier spring increase western US forest wildfire activity. Science 313, 940–943 (2006).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  14. Novick, K. A. et al. The increasing importance of atmospheric demand for ecosystem water and carbon fluxes. Nat. Clim. Change 6, 1023–1027 (2016).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  15. Webber, H. et al. Uncertainty in future irrigation water demand and risk of crop failure for maize in Europe. Environ. Res. Lett. 11, 074007 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Huang, J., Yu, H., Dai, A., Wei, Y. & Kang, L. Drylands face potential threat under 2 °C global warming target. Nat. Clim. Change 7, 417–422 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Sedláček, J. & Knutti, R. Half of the world’s population experience robust changes in the water cycle for a 2 °C warmer world. Environ. Res. Lett. 9, 044008 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Dai, A. Increasing drought under global warming in observations and models. Nat. Clim. Change 3, 52–58 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Gonzalez, P., Neilson, R. P., Lenihan, J. M. & Drapek, R. J. Global patterns in the vulnerability of ecosystems to vegetation shifts due to climate change. Glob. Ecol. Biogeogr. 19, 755–768 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. D’Odorico, P., Bhattachan, A., Davis, K. F., Ravi, S. & Runyan, C. W. Global desertification: drivers and feedbacks. Adv. Water Resour. 51, 326–344 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Vicente-Serrano, S. M. et al. Evidence of increasing drought severity caused by temperature rise in southern Europe. Environ. Res. Lett. 9, 044001 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Joshi, M., Hawkins, E., Sutton, R., Lowe, J. & Frame, D. Projections of when temperature change will exceed 2 °C above pre-industrial levels. Nat. Clim. Change 1, 407–412 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Park, C.-E., Jeong, S.-J., Ho, C.-H. & Kim, J. Regional variations in potential plant habitat changes in response to multiple global warming scenarios. J. Clim. 28, 2884–2899 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Taylor, K. E., Stouffer, R. J. & Meehl, G. A. An overview of CMIP5 and the experiment design. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 93, 485–498 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Barbeta, A. et al. The combined effects of a long-term experimental drought and an extreme drought on the use of plant-water sources in a Mediterranean forest. Glob. Change Biol. 21, 1213–1225 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Schleussner, C.-F. et al. Science and policy characteristics of the Paris Agreement temperature goal. Nat. Clim. Change 6, 827–835 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Hawkins, E. et al. Estimating changes in global temperature since the preindustrial period. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 98, 1841–1856 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Caesar, J. et al. Response of the HadGEM2 earth system model to future greenhouse gas emissions pathways to the year 2300. J. Clim. 26, 3275–3284 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Milly, P. C. D. & Dunne, K. A. Potential evapotranspiration and continental drying. Nat. Clim. Change 6, 946–949 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Rogelj, J. et al. Paris Agreement climate proposals need a boost to keep warming well below 2 °C. Nature 534, 631–639 (2016).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  31. Chen, M., Xie, P., Janowiak, J. E. & Arkin, P. A. Global land precipitation: a 50-yr monthly analysis based on gauge observations. J. Hydrometeorol. 3, 249–266 (2002).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Fan, Y. & van den Dool, H. A global monthly land surface air temperature analysis for 1948–present. J. Geophys. Res. 113, D01103 (2008).

    Google Scholar 

  33. Allen, R. G. Pereira, L. S., Raes, D. & Smith, M. Crop Evapotranspiration–Guidelines for Computing Crop Water Requirements. FAO Irrigation and Drainage Paper 56 (FAO, 1998).

  34. Mastrandrea, M. D. et al. Guidance Note for Lead Authors of the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report on Consistent Treatment of Uncertainties (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2010).

  35. Murakami, D. & Yamagata, Y. Estimation of gridded population and GDP scenarios with spatially explicit statistical downscaling. Preprint at (2016).

Download references


S.-J.J. and C.-E.P. were supported by the startup funding of the Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTECH). J.L. was supported by the National Science Fund for Distinguished Youth Scholars (41625001). J.L. was supported by part of the research funding provided by the Southern University of Science and Technology (grant no. G01296001). T.O. was supported by the Belmont Forum/JPI-Climate project INTEGRATE (NERC NE/P006809/1). M.J. was supported by the UK Natural Environment Research Council Grant Robust Spatial Projections (NE/N018397/1). C.-H.H. and H.P. were funded by the Korea Ministry of Environment as part of the ‘Climate Change Correspondence Program’. B.-M.K. was supported by Korea Polar Research Institute Project (PE17130). We acknowledge the World Climate Research Program’s Working Group on Coupled Modelling, which is responsible for CMIP, and we thank the climate modeling groups (listed in Supplementary Table 1 of this paper) for producing and making available their model output. For CMIP the US Department of Energy’s Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison provides coordinating support and led development of software infrastructure in partnership with the Global Organization for Earth System Science Portals.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



C.-E.P. and S.-J.J. conceived and designed the study, analysed data and wrote the paper. M.J. and T.J.O. improved the study, provided data and wrote the paper. C.-H.H., S.P., D.C., J.L., H.Y., H.P., B.-M.K. wrote the paper. S.F. provided data and wrote the paper.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Su-Jong Jeong.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Additional information

Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Model Validation, Supplementary References, Supplementary Table 1 and Supplementary Figures 1–9

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Park, CE., Jeong, SJ., Joshi, M. et al. Keeping global warming within 1.5 °C constrains emergence of aridification. Nature Clim Change 8, 70–74 (2018).

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