Earth  ID: 4270

Megadroughts in U.S. West Projected to be Worst of the Millennium

Droughts in the Southwest and Central Plains of the United States in the second half of the 21st century could be drier and longer than anything humans have seen in those regions in the last 1,000 years, according to a new NASA study published in Science Advances on Feb 12, 2015. The research found continued increases in human-produced greenhouse gas emissions drives up the risk of severe droughts in these regions.

"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.


Visualization Credits

Greg Shirah (NASA/GSFC): Lead Animator
Cheng Zhang (USRA): Lead Animator
Jefferson Beck (USRA): Lead Producer
Ellen T. Gray (ADNET Systems, Inc.): Lead Writer
Benjamin I. Cook (NASA/GSFC GISS): Lead Scientist
Toby R. Ault (Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Cornell University): Scientist
Jason E. Smerdon (Ocean and Climate Physics, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory): Scientist
Eric Sokolowsky (GST): Project Support
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Data Used:
Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase 5 1900 thought 2099
Note: While we identify the data sets used in these visualizations, we do not store any further details nor the data sets themselves on our site.

DLESE >> Atmospheric science
DLESE >> Natural hazards
GCMD >> Earth Science >> Climate Indicators >> Drought Indices
GCMD >> Earth Science >> Atmosphere >> Atmospheric Phenomena >> Drought
SVS >> Hyperwall
NASA Science >> Earth

GCMD keywords can be found on the Internet with the following citation: Olsen, L.M., G. Major, K. Shein, J. Scialdone, S. Ritz, T. Stevens, M. Morahan, A. Aleman, R. Vogel, S. Leicester, H. Weir, M. Meaux, S. Grebas, C.Solomon, M. Holland, T. Northcutt, R. A. Restrepo, R. Bilodeau, 2013. NASA/Global Change Master Directory (GCMD) Earth Science Keywords. Version