Drought and Climate Change: New Report Predicts What’s Ahead

Scientists analyzing the latest data and climate models predict unprecedented droughts later this century if we don’t significantly curb greenhouse gas emissions.

| June/July 2015

  • Climate Change
    Farmers in the nation’s breadbasket may face decades-long droughts if climate change goes unmitigated, a new report predicts.
    Photo by Fotolia/Johan Larson

  • Climate Change

Unprecedented droughts lasting several decades are expected to plague the Southwest and Central Plains during the last half of this century, according to a new report by authors from Columbia University, Cornell University and the NASA Goddard Institute. These future “megadroughts,” as scientists are calling them, would be more severe than any dry period experienced in North America within the past 1,000 years.

The study’s authors, who published their findings in the journal Science Advances in February, paired historical data of past drought trends with the most advanced climate models to make their predictions. “In both the Southwest and Central Plains, we’re talking about risk levels of 80 percent that a 35-year-long drought will occur by the end of the century if climate change goes unmitigated,” says study co-author Toby Ault, a professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at Cornell. 

While droughts are a natural part of the planet’s climate cycles, research has shown that higher temperatures resulting from human-produced greenhouse gas emissions will exacerbate natural dry spells by increasing evaporation rates during the same time period that precipitation will drop. Many scientists characterize regional climate change impacts with the generalization, “Wet places will get wetter and dry places will get drier.” Recent studies affirm this prediction — not only for the parched Plains and Southwest, but also for the relatively wet eastern half of the country, where precipitation is projected to increase.

Groundwater used for irrigation is already being depleted at an unsustainable rate in many agricultural regions. A decades-long drought in these areas would spell devastation for the farmers who produce the amber grains of the Central Plains, and for the industries and exporters that rely on U.S. wheat, corn and soybeans. We don’t have to follow this path, however. If we cut our carbon emissions, the study’s authors say, we can mitigate climate change and significantly reduce drought risk, especially for the Central Plains. Read the full report online.

Kale Roberts is the Blogging Coordinator and a former editor for MOTHER EARTH NEWS. He is currently a Rachel Carson Scholar at the Bard Center for Environmental Policy. His interests include renewable energy, climate finance, and sustainable rural development. You can find him on Google+.

7/1/2015 9:06:55 PM

Other planets in our solar system have dried up possibly without human assistance? Earth has had droughts before there were even people. What causes drought is the subject of much study and that's good. However even better would be study to design projects to meet the great challenge of drought and since we still are the blue planet John F Kennedy and Parsons engineering did that 50 years ago. We still have their design for management of continental water resources. They named it NAWAPA, North America Water and Power Alliance. It's bigger than the pyramids, the Great Wall, and the Grand Cooley combined. Abundant living here we come!

6/28/2015 1:14:57 AM

@ TODDK It seams to me that you don't know the the differance between climate and weather. Also, if you have not seen any evidence that humans are impacting on the global climate then you are not looking very hard. Or maybe you don't want to look as facing up to facts can be scary.

6/12/2015 9:37:39 AM

It seems to me that these climate models should first prove capable of being somewhat correct in the short-term before we should start paying any attention to their dire long-term predictions. Also, I have not yet seen any compelling evidence to indicate that humans actually CAN do anything to significantly impact global climate.



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