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Concept: Drought


California is currently in the midst of a record-setting drought. The drought began in 2012 and now includes the lowest calendar-year and 12-mo precipitation, the highest annual temperature, and the most extreme drought indicators on record. The extremely warm and dry conditions have led to acute water shortages, groundwater overdraft, critically low streamflow, and enhanced wildfire risk. Analyzing historical climate observations from California, we find that precipitation deficits in California were more than twice as likely to yield drought years if they occurred when conditions were warm. We find that although there has not been a substantial change in the probability of either negative or moderately negative precipitation anomalies in recent decades, the occurrence of drought years has been greater in the past two decades than in the preceding century. In addition, the probability that precipitation deficits co-occur with warm conditions and the probability that precipitation deficits produce drought have both increased. Climate model experiments with and without anthropogenic forcings reveal that human activities have increased the probability that dry precipitation years are also warm. Further, a large ensemble of climate model realizations reveals that additional global warming over the next few decades is very likely to create ∼100% probability that any annual-scale dry period is also extremely warm. We therefore conclude that anthropogenic warming is increasing the probability of co-occurring warm-dry conditions like those that have created the acute human and ecosystem impacts associated with the “exceptional” 2012-2014 drought in California.

Concepts: Earth, Precipitation, Climate, Climate change, Meteorology, Global warming, Extreme weather, Drought


Arid grassland ecosystems have significant interannual variation in carbon exchange; however, it is unclear how environmental factors influence carbon exchange in different hydrological years. In this study, the eddy covariance technique was used to investigate the seasonal and interannual variability of CO(2) flux over a temperate desert steppe in Inner Mongolia, China from 2008 to 2010. The amounts and times of precipitation varied significantly throughout the study period. The precipitation in 2009 (186.4 mm) was close to the long-term average (183.9±47.6 mm), while the precipitation in 2008 (136.3 mm) and 2010 (141.3 mm) was approximately a quarter below the long-term average. The temperate desert steppe showed carbon neutrality for atmospheric CO(2) throughout the study period, with a net ecosystem carbon dioxide exchange (NEE) of -7.2, -22.9, and 26.0 g C m(-2) yr(-1) in 2008, 2009, and 2010, not significantly different from zero. The ecosystem gained more carbon in 2009 compared to other two relatively dry years, while there was significant difference in carbon uptake between 2008 and 2010, although both years recorded similar annual precipitation. The results suggest that summer precipitation is a key factor determining annual NEE. The apparent quantum yield and saturation value of NEE (NEE(sat)) and the temperature sensitivity coefficient of ecosystem respiration (R(eco)) exhibited significant variations. The values of NEE(sat) were -2.6, -2.9, and -1.4 µmol CO(2) m(-2) s(-1) in 2008, 2009, and 2010, respectively. Drought suppressed both the gross primary production (GPP) and R(eco), and the drought sensitivity of GPP was greater than that of R(eco). The soil water content sensitivity of GPP was high during the dry year of 2008 with limited soil moisture availability. Our results suggest the carbon balance of this temperate desert steppe was not only sensitive to total annual precipitation, but also to its seasonal distribution.

Concepts: Carbon dioxide, Water, Earth, Precipitation, Climate, Soil, Hydrology, Drought


Human activity and related land use change are the primary cause of accelerated soil erosion, which has substantial implications for nutrient and carbon cycling, land productivity and in turn, worldwide socio-economic conditions. Here we present an unprecedentedly high resolution (250 × 250 m) global potential soil erosion model, using a combination of remote sensing, GIS modelling and census data. We challenge the previous annual soil erosion reference values as our estimate, of 35.9 Pg yr-1 of soil eroded in 2012, is at least two times lower. Moreover, we estimate the spatial and temporal effects of land use change between 2001 and 2012 and the potential offset of the global application of conservation practices. Our findings indicate a potential overall increase in global soil erosion driven by cropland expansion. The greatest increases are predicted to occur in Sub-Saharan Africa, South America and Southeast Asia. The least developed economies have been found to experience the highest estimates of soil erosion rates.

Concepts: Africa, Soil, Erosion, Surface runoff, Drought, Geomorphology, Deforestation, Desertification


The collapse of some pre-historical and historical cultures, including Chinese dynasties were presumably linked to widespread droughts, on the basis of synchronicities of societal crises and proxy-based climate events. Here, we present a comparison of ancient inscriptions in Dayu Cave from Qinling Mountains, central China, which described accurate times and detailed impacts of seven drought events during the period of 1520-1920 CE, with high-resolution speleothem records from the same cave. The comparable results provide unique and robust tests on relationships among speleothem δ(18)O changes, drought events, and societal unrest. With direct historical evidences, our results suggest that droughts and even modest events interrupting otherwise wet intervals can cause serious social crises. Modeling results of speleothem δ(18)O series suggest that future precipitation in central China may be below the average of the past 500 years. As Qinling Mountain is the main recharge area of two large water transfer projects and habitats of many endangered species, it is imperative to explore an adaptive strategy for the decline in precipitation and/or drought events.

Concepts: Precipitation, Climate, China, Endangered species, Meteorology, Giant Panda, Adaptation, Drought


Past severe droughts over North America have led to massive water shortages and increases in wildfire frequency. Triggering sources for multi-year droughts in this region include randomly occurring atmospheric blocking patterns, ocean impacts on atmospheric circulation, and climate’s response to anthropogenic radiative forcings. A combination of these sources translates into a difficulty to predict the onset and length of such droughts on multi-year timescales. Here we present results from a new multi-year dynamical prediction system that exhibits a high degree of skill in forecasting wildfire probabilities and drought for 10-23 and 10-45 months lead time, which extends far beyond the current seasonal prediction activities for southwestern North America. Using a state-of-the-art earth system model along with 3-dimensional ocean data assimilation and by prescribing the external radiative forcings, this system simulates the observed low-frequency variability of precipitation, soil water, and wildfire probabilities in close agreement with observational records and reanalysis data. The underlying source of multi-year predictability can be traced back to variations of the Atlantic/Pacific sea surface temperature gradient, external radiative forcings, and the low-pass filtering characteristics of soils.

Concepts: Scientific method, Earth, Prediction, Future, Precipitation, Climate, Soil, Drought


Droughts and other extreme precipitation events are predicted to increase in intensity, duration, and extent, with uncertain implications for terrestrial carbon © sequestration. Soil wetting from above (precipitation) results in a characteristically different pattern of pore-filling than wetting from below (groundwater), with larger, well-connected pores filling before finer pore spaces, unlike groundwater rise in which capillary forces saturate the finest pores first. Here we demonstrate that pore-scale wetting patterns interact with antecedent soil moisture conditions to alter pore-scale, core-scale, and field-scale C dynamics. Drought legacy and wetting direction are perhaps more important determinants of short-term C mineralization than current soil moisture content in these soils. Our results highlight that microbial access to C is not solely limited by physical protection, but also by drought or wetting-induced shifts in hydrologic connectivity. We argue that models should treat soil moisture within a three-dimensional framework emphasizing hydrologic conduits for C and resource diffusion.

Concepts: Water, Precipitation, Soil, Hydrology, Erosion, Meteorology, Surface runoff, Drought


Combined effects of climate change and deforestation have altered precipitation patterns in the Amazon. This has led to changes in the frequency of extreme events of flood and drought in recent decades and in the magnitude of the annual flood pulse, a phenomenon that influences virtually all aspects of river-floodplain ecosystem dynamics. Analysis of long-term data revealed abrupt and synchronous changes in hydrology and fish assemblage structure of a floodplain lake near the confluence of Amazon and Negro rivers. After an intense drought in 2005, the assemblage assumed a different and fairly persistent taxonomic composition and functional structure. Declines in abundance after 2005 were more pronounced for species of all sizes having equilibrium life history strategy, large species with periodic life history strategy, and for all trophic levels except primary consumers. Our results suggest that the extreme drought triggered changes in the fish assemblage and subsequent anomalous hydrological conditions have hampered assemblage recovery. These findings stress the need to account for climatic-driven hydrological changes in conservation efforts addressing aquatic biodiversity and fishery resources in the central Amazon.

Concepts: Biodiversity, Ecology, Ecosystem, Hydrology, Water cycle, River, Meteorology, Drought


Recent severe European droughts raise the vital question: are we already experiencing measurable changes in drought likelihood that agree with climate change projections? The plethora of drought definitions compounds this question, requiring instead that we ask: how have various types of drought changed, how do these changes compare with climate projections, and what are the causes of observed differences? To our knowledge, this study is the first to reveal a regional divergence in drought likelihood as measured by the two most prominent meteorological drought indices: the Standardized Precipitation Index (SPI) and the Standardized Precipitation-Evapotranspiration Index (SPEI) across Europe over the period 1958-2014. This divergence is driven primarily by an increase in temperature from 1970-2014, which in turn increased reference evapotranspiration (ET0) and thereby drought area measured by the SPEI. For both indices, Europe-wide analysis shows increasing drought frequencies in southern Europe and decreasing frequencies in northern Europe. Notably, increases in temperature and ET0 have enhanced droughts in southern Europe while counteracting increased precipitation in northern Europe. This is consistent with projections under climate change, indicating that climate change impacts on European drought may already be observable and highlighting the potential for discrepancies among standardized drought indices in a non-stationary climate.

Concepts: Precipitation, Climate, Hydrology, Change, Meteorology, Western Europe, Drought, Northern Europe


The Climate Hazards group Infrared Precipitation with Stations (CHIRPS) dataset builds on previous approaches to ‘smart’ interpolation techniques and high resolution, long period of record precipitation estimates based on infrared Cold Cloud Duration (CCD) observations. The algorithm i) is built around a 0.05° climatology that incorporates satellite information to represent sparsely gauged locations, ii) incorporates daily, pentadal, and monthly 1981-present 0.05° CCD-based precipitation estimates, iii) blends station data to produce a preliminary information product with a latency of about 2 days and a final product with an average latency of about 3 weeks, and iv) uses a novel blending procedure incorporating the spatial correlation structure of CCD-estimates to assign interpolation weights. We present the CHIRPS algorithm, global and regional validation results, and show how CHIRPS can be used to quantify the hydrologic impacts of decreasing precipitation and rising air temperatures in the Greater Horn of Africa. Using the Variable Infiltration Capacity model, we show that CHIRPS can support effective hydrologic forecasts and trend analyses in southeastern Ethiopia.

Concepts: Time, Ethiopia, Precipitation, Hydrology, Meteorology, Surface runoff, Drought, Horn of Africa


Global climate change has sharpened focus on the social and economic challenges associated with water deficits, particularly in regions where anthropogenic demands exceed supply. This modern condition was also experienced by the people of ancient western Asia, where chronic water shortages were accentuated by recurrent droughts. However, human societies may react to climate change, particularly desiccation, in different ways depending on specific local conditions. Focusing on the biblical site of Tel Dan (present-day Israel), we show the effects of severe precipitation decline in an environment that was well watered and fertile even in times of drought. Such local niches of prosperity became attractive targets for predation when food resources became scarce in surrounding rain-fed areas. We propose that predation forced urban populations to either flee or adopt new subsistence strategies. Predation and abandonment, even if only partial, led to the poor maintenance of water networks in and around the city. Once stagnant water surrounded the area, water-borne disease proliferated. Our study shows how climate changes can disrupt social and political structures, cause water system management to collapse, and facilitate marshland expansion.

Concepts: Water, Precipitation, Climate, Weather, Climate change, Drinking water, Water supply, Drought