Climate Dynamics

, Volume 43, Issue 9–10, pp 2607–2627 | Cite as

Global warming and 21st century drying

  • Benjamin I. CookEmail author
  • Jason E. Smerdon
  • Richard Seager
  • Sloan Coats


Global warming is expected to increase the frequency and intensity of droughts in the twenty-first century, but the relative contributions from changes in moisture supply (precipitation) versus evaporative demand (potential evapotranspiration; PET) have not been comprehensively assessed. Using output from a suite of general circulation model (GCM) simulations from phase 5 of the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project, projected twenty-first century drying and wetting trends are investigated using two offline indices of surface moisture balance: the Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI) and the Standardized Precipitation Evapotranspiration Index (SPEI). PDSI and SPEI projections using precipitation and Penman-Monteith based PET changes from the GCMs generally agree, showing robust cross-model drying in western North America, Central America, the Mediterranean, southern Africa, and the Amazon and robust wetting occurring in the Northern Hemisphere high latitudes and east Africa (PDSI only). The SPEI is more sensitive to PET changes than the PDSI, especially in arid regions such as the Sahara and Middle East. Regional drying and wetting patterns largely mirror the spatially heterogeneous response of precipitation in the models, although drying in the PDSI and SPEI calculations extends beyond the regions of reduced precipitation. This expansion of drying areas is attributed to globally widespread increases in PET, caused by increases in surface net radiation and the vapor pressure deficit. Increased PET not only intensifies drying in areas where precipitation is already reduced, it also drives areas into drought that would otherwise experience little drying or even wetting from precipitation trends alone. This PET amplification effect is largest in the Northern Hemisphere mid-latitudes, and is especially pronounced in western North America, Europe, and southeast China. Compared to PDSI projections using precipitation changes only, the projections incorporating both precipitation and PET changes increase the percentage of global land area projected to experience at least moderate drying (PDSI standard deviation of ≤−1) by the end of the twenty-first century from 12 to 30 %. PET induced moderate drying is even more severe in the SPEI projections (SPEI standard deviation of ≤−1; 11 to 44 %), although this is likely less meaningful because much of the PET induced drying in the SPEI occurs in the aforementioned arid regions. Integrated accounting of both the supply and demand sides of the surface moisture balance is therefore critical for characterizing the full range of projected drought risks tied to increasing greenhouse gases and associated warming of the climate system.


Drought CMIP5 Global warming PDSI SPEI 



We acknowledge the World Climate Research Programme’s Working Group on Coupled Modelling, which is responsible for CMIP, and we thank the climate modeling groups (listed in Table 1 of this paper) for producing and making available their model output. For CMIP, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison provides coordinating support and led development of software infrastructure in partnership with the Global Organization for Earth System Science Portals. All derived PDSI and SPEI fields are available for download from Haibo Liu and Naomi Henderson provided computational support at LDEO. RS and JES were supported in part by the NOAA award Global Decadal Hydroclimate Variability and Change (NA10 OAR431037). RS was also supported by DOE award DE-SC0005107. Further support came from NSF award AGS-1243204 and NOAA award NA10OAR4310137. BIC was supported by NASA. LDEO Publication number #7758. We thank two anonymous reviewers for comments that greatly improved the quality of this manuscript.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag (outside the USA) 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Benjamin I. Cook
    • 1
    Email author
  • Jason E. Smerdon
    • 2
  • Richard Seager
    • 2
  • Sloan Coats
    • 2
  1. 1.NASA Goddard Institute for Space StudiesNew YorkUSA
  2. 2.Lamont-Doherty Earth ObservatoryPalisadesUSA

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