"Natural droughts like the 1930s Dust Bowl and the current drought in the Southwest have historically lasted maybe a decade or a little less," said Ben Cook, climate scientist at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies and the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University in New York City, and lead author of the study. "What these results are saying is we're going to get a drought similar to those events, but it is probably going to last at least 30 to 35 years."
According to Cook, the current likelihood of a megadrought, a drought lasting more than three decades, is 12 percent. If greenhouse gas emissions stop increasing in the mid-21st century, as in a climate scenario called RCP 4.5, Cook and his colleagues project the likelihood of megadrought to reach more than 60 percent. However, if greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase along current trajectories throughout the 21st century, climate scenario RCP 8.5, there is an 80 percent likelihood of a decades-long megadrought in the Southwest and Central Plains between the years 2050 and 2099.
The scientists analyzed a drought severity index and two soil moisture data sets from 17 climate models that were run for both emissions scenarios. The high emissions scenario projects the equivalent of an atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration of 1,370 parts per million (ppm) by 2100, while the moderate emissions scenario projects the equivalent of 650 ppm by 2100. Currently, the atmosphere contains 400 ppm of CO2.