Climate Science Glossary

Term Lookup

Enter a term in the search box to find its definition.


Use the controls in the far right panel to increase or decrease the number of terms automatically displayed (or to completely turn that feature off).

Term Lookup


All IPCC definitions taken from Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Working Group I Contribution to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Annex I, Glossary, pp. 941-954. Cambridge University Press.

Home Arguments Software Resources Comments The Consensus Project Translations About Support

Twitter Facebook YouTube Mastodon MeWe

RSS Posts RSS Comments Email Subscribe

Climate's changed before
It's the sun
It's not bad
There is no consensus
It's cooling
Models are unreliable
Temp record is unreliable
Animals and plants can adapt
It hasn't warmed since 1998
Antarctica is gaining ice
View All Arguments...

New? Register here
Forgot your password?

Latest Posts


Global warming will intensify drought, says new study

Posted on 23 December 2013 by John Abraham

When scientists think about climate change, we often focus on long term trends and multi-year averages of various climate measures such as temperature, ocean heat, sea level, ocean acidity, and ice loss. But, what matters most in our day-to-day lives is extreme weather. If human-caused climate change leads to more extreme weather, it would make taking action more prudent.

It is clear that human emissions have led to increased frequencies of heat waves and have changed the patterns of rainfall around the world. The general view is that areas which are currently wet will become wetter; areas that are currently dry will become drier. Additionally, rainfall will occur in heavy doses. So, when you look at the Earth in total, the canceling effects of wetter and drier hides the reality of regional changes that really matter in our lives and our economies.

Some of the precipitation changes are associated with large scale changes to atmospheric wind patterns that are moving climate zones. Other changes, however, are more local and relate to the ability of liquid water to evaporate. It is well known, and each of us knows this by experience, warm air can hold more water than cold air (although technically air doesn't "hold" water). As the Earth heats, there is the tendency for a more moist atmosphere – consequently, heavier downpours. All of this has been predicted and observed.

But, this added moisture has to come from somewhere and in regions where there is ample water (such as over oceans), a nearly unlimited supply means rising temperatures lead to increasing moisture. But, in dry regions where there is very little water to evaporate, this "moistening" effect doesn't exist. Here, increasing temperatures just dry things out. The fancy term for this moisture transfer is evapotranspiration (ET).

So on to droughts. A very recent study by Trenberth et al., "Global warming and changes in drought" published in Natural Climate Change has investigated the way droughts are measured. They discuss various drought metrics such as the Standardized Precipitation Index which is based entirely on precipitation, the Standardized Precipitation and Evapotranspiration Index which includes ET effects, and the Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI) which balances precipitation, evaporation, runoff, and includes local soil moisture and vegetation.

This most sophisticated metric has led different teams of researchers to very different conclusions about drought trends. One study reports "little change in drought over the past 60 years" while another, "increasing drought under global warming in observations and models". How could researchers come to such different conclusions? It turns out that various versions of the PDSI have differing algorithms for calculating ET which partially explains the differences.

First, quantifying evapotranspiration is very challenging; the observational spread is large as are regional uncertainties. Second, the choice of baseline period is crucial. The first study mentioned above used a 1950-2008 baseline which includes human impacts while the second study baseline is limited to 1950-1979 which, while having less human influence turned out to be a wetter than normal period.

Another issue is the quantification of precipitation. The two studies used different precipitation datasets which are characterized by their number of stations and geographic coverage.

So what are the recommendations for improving the agreement? First, the authors suggest that countries should make available more of their precipitation data. Secondly, higher resolution precipitation information is needed (such as hourly data) so that the amount of runoff can be more accurately known. Similar improvements in ET are needed. Overall, the study concludes,

Click here to read the rest

0 0

Printable Version  |  Link to this page


Comments 1 to 3:

  1. Thanks for this excellent article. When I read the title I thought, "That's odd; I thought I just read that Trenberth had concluded almost the opposite." Then I saw that explaining the difference between the two studies was very nicely explained.

    From the article 'below the fold':

        "Increased heating from global warming may not cause droughts but it is expected that when droughts occur they are likely to set in quicker and be more intense."

    That can't help but remind me of the "flash drought" that developed so rapidly last year (and is still largely with us, though shifted west a bit.)

    0 0
  2. It is clear that we aren't going to reduce or even stabilize our output of Carbon dioxide from fossil fuel so the next best thing is to prepare for sudden heavy downpours puntuating long periods of drought.  Think Australa.  Way back in and before the time of Christ in the deserts in the vicinity of Southern Israel there was a civilization called the Nabateans.  It was and still is a very dry area puntuated by extreme rainfall events.  With only hand tools, they build channels to transfer water into huge caverns that they cut into the live rock.  If we made the same effort in proportion to our ability that they made in proportion to theirs we would, for instance, turn the floods in Australia back into the interior to sink into the ground and charge up the water tables.  Underground, evaporation ceases and there is not a better place for agriculture than a desert, if you have water available.  Look at the Arava valley north of Elat to see an example.  We could also get serious about sea water green houses which can use any saline, brackish or alkaline water for growing plants.  Google it to see how they work.  The smart money is on some huge disruptions of our climate system and no significant action to reduce carbon outputs so preparation is our only option.

    0 0
  3. It is anything but clear that we aren't going to reduce CO2 from fossil fuel.  When the Dallas Morning News is advocating for a carbon tax whild noting major industries, including energy companies, that have changed their positions you know there is opportunity for change.  I personally believe in a significant revenue-neutral tax with 100% equitable distribution of the revenues to American citizens.  The plan promoted by James Hansen would do a great deal to reduce and ultimately get us off of fossil fuels in the relatively near future.  For oh so many reasons, we need to go there.

    0 0

You need to be logged in to post a comment. Login via the left margin or if you're new, register here.

The Consensus Project Website


(free to republish)

© Copyright 2023 John Cook
Home | Translations | About Us | Privacy | Contact Us