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Megadroughts in the Common Era and the Anthropocene

Abstract

Exceptional drought events, known as megadroughts, have occurred on every continent outside Antarctica over the past ~2,000 years, causing major ecological and societal disturbances. In this Review, we discuss shared causes and features of Common Era (Year 1–present) and future megadroughts. Decadal variations in sea surface temperatures are the primary driver of megadroughts, with secondary contributions from radiative forcing and land–atmosphere interactions. Anthropogenic climate change has intensified ongoing megadroughts in south-western North America and across Chile and Argentina. Future megadroughts will be substantially warmer than past events, with this warming driving projected increases in megadrought risk and severity across many regions, including western North America, Central America, Europe and the Mediterranean, extratropical South America, and Australia. However, several knowledge gaps currently undermine confidence in understanding past and future megadroughts. These gaps include a paucity of high-resolution palaeoclimate information over Africa, tropical South America and other regions; incomplete representations of internal variability and land surface processes in climate models; and the undetermined capacity of water-resource management systems to mitigate megadrought impacts. Addressing these deficiencies will be crucial for increasing confidence in projections of future megadrought risk and for resiliency planning.

Key points

  • The term ‘megadrought’ is often used to refer to droughts that exceed the length of most droughts in the instrumental record, the period of climate observations largely serving as the basis for modern water-resource management and infrastructure.

  • Although developing a more quantitative megadrought definition is challenging, it is suggested that the term be reserved for “persistent, multi-year drought events that are exceptional in terms of severity, duration, or spatial extent when compared to other regional droughts during the instrumental period or the Common Era”.

  • Past megadroughts caused major ecological and societal disturbances over the last two millennia and were forced primarily by persistent ocean states, with possible secondary contributions from internal atmospheric variability, volcanic and solar forcing, and land–atmosphere interactions.

  • Some of the most active megadrought regions in the past are also areas where anthropogenic climate change is projected to increase future drought risk through declines in precipitation, increases in evaporative demand, and/or changes in plant water use.

  • Megadroughts have the potential to substantially strain modern water-management systems, although understanding of the risks of such events, and their ultimate impacts, is still limited by imperfect knowledge of past and future megadrought dynamics.

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Fig. 1: Common Era drought characteristics of soil moisture.
Fig. 2: Common Era megadroughts.
Fig. 3: Anthropogenic contributions to twenty-first-century megadroughts.
Fig. 4: Projected megadrought risk.

Data availability

North America, Mexico, South America and Australia–New Zealand drought atlas reconstructions are available from http://drought.memphis.edu/. Updated version of the Eurasian drought atlases is available from https://www.dropbox.com/s/vl9jfm7ls0szbin/GEDA_rec.nc. Data for the south-western North America megadrought analyses (Box 1) can be found at https://www.ncei.noaa.gov/access/metadata/landing-page/bin/iso?id=gov.noaa.nodc:0241207. Data for the Angkor megadrought analysis (Box 2) can be found at https://www.dropbox.com/s/n2lo99h9qn17prg/madaV2.nc. All CMIP6 data are available from the Earth System Grid (https://esgf-node.llnl.gov/search/cmip6/).

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Acknowledgements

B.I.C., A.P.W. and K.M. are supported by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) MAPP NA19OAR4310278. B.I.C. and A.P.W. are also supported by NASA’s Modeling, Analysis, and Prediction programme (MAP-16-0081). J.E.S. is supported by National Science Foundation (NSF) AGS-1805490. B.I.C., A.P.W., K.M., J.E.S., J.S.M. and R.S. are supported by Department of Energy (DOE) Grant ESC0022302. J.E.S. and R.S. are supported by NSF AGS 2101214 and R.S. is supported by NSF AGS 2127684. K.A. is supported by Australian Research Council (ARC) Grant FT200100102. L.A.-H., A.P.W. and J.E.S. are supported by NSF OISE-1743738; L.A.-H. and A.P.W. also supported by AGS-1702789 and AGS-1903687. J.E.S., R.S. and J.S.M. are supported by NOAA MAPP NA20OAR4310425. M.I. is supported by the Helmholtz Association through the joint programme ‘Changing Earth — Sustaining our Future’ (PoF IV) of the Alfred-Wegener-Institut and the Helmholtz Climate Initiative REKLIM. F.L. is supported by the US DOE Office of Science, Office of Biological & Environmental Research (BER), Regional and Global Model Analysis (RGMA) component of the Earth and Environmental System Modeling Program under Award Number DE-SC0022070 and NSF IA 1947282. This work was also supported by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), which is a major facility sponsored by the NSF under Cooperative Agreement No. 1852977. M.S.M. is supported by FONDECYT-BM-INC.INV 039-2019. H.T.T.N. is supported by the Lamont-Doherty Postdoctoral Fellowship. M.P.R. and U.K.T. supported by NOAA Climate & Global Change Fellowship #NA18NWS4620043B. M.R. is supported by NASA 80NSSC21K1713. D.G. is supported by NSF-AGS 1903504. K.J.A. is supported by NSF AGS-1501856, BCS-1759629 and AGS-1803995.

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B.I.C., J.E.S., E.R.C., A.P.W., K.J.A. and J.S.M. led the review. H.T.T.N provided Box 2 text and figure. J.S.M. provided Fig. 4. All authors contributed to the manuscript preparation, interpretation, discussion and writing.

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Cook, B.I., Smerdon, J.E., Cook, E.R. et al. Megadroughts in the Common Era and the Anthropocene. Nat Rev Earth Environ 3, 741–757 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43017-022-00329-1

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