Megadroughts in North America: placing IPCC projections of hydroclimatic change in a long-term palaeoclimate context

Cook, Edward R.; Seager, Richard; Heim, Richard R.; Herweijer, Celine; Vose, Russell S.; Woodhouse, Connie

IPCC Assessment Report 4 model projections suggest that the subtropical dry zones of the world will both dry and expand poleward in the future due to greenhouse warming. The US Southwest is particularly vulnerable in this regard and model projections indicate a progressive drying there out to the end of the 21st century. At the same time, the USA has been in a state of drought over much of the West for about 10 years now. While severe, this turn of the century drought has not yet clearly exceeded the severity of two exceptional droughts in the 20th century. So while the coincidence between the turn of the century drought and projected drying in the Southwest is cause for concern, it is premature to claim that the model projections are correct. At the same time, great new insights into past drought variability over North America have been made through the development of the North American Drought Atlas from tree rings. Analyses of this drought atlas have revealed past megadroughts of unprecedented duration in the West, largely in the Medieval period about 1000 years ago. A vastly improved Living Blended Drought Atlas (LBDA) for North America now under development reveals these megadroughts in far greater detail. The LBDA indicates the occurrence of the same Medieval megadroughts in the West and similar-scale megadroughts in the agriculturally and commercially important Mississippi Valley. Possible causes of these megadroughts and their implications for the future are discussed.

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Journal of Quaternary Science

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