Climate Change and Drought: From Past to Future


Drought is a complex and multivariate phenomenon influenced by diverse physical and biological processes. Such complexity precludes simplistic explanations of cause and effect, making investigations of climate change and drought a challenging task. Here, we review important recent advances in our understanding of drought dynamics, drawing from studies of paleoclimate, the historical record, and model simulations of the past and future. Paleoclimate studies of drought variability over the last two millennia have progressed considerably through the development of new reconstructions and analyses combining reconstructions with process-based models. This work has generated new evidence for tropical Pacific forcing of megadroughts in Southwest North America, provided additional constraints for interpreting climate change projections in poorly characterized regions like East Africa, and demonstrated the exceptional magnitude of many modern era droughts. Development of high resolution proxy networks has lagged in many regions (e.g., South America, Africa), however, and quantitative comparisons between the paleoclimate record, models, and observations remain challenging. Fingerprints of anthropogenic climate change consistent with long-term warming projections have been identified for droughts in California, the Pacific Northwest, Western North America, and the Mediterranean. In other regions (e.g., Southwest North America, Australia, Africa), however, the degree to which climate change has affected recent droughts is more uncertain. While climate change-forced declines in precipitation have been detected for the Mediterranean, in most regions, the climate change signal has manifested through warmer temperatures that have increased evaporative losses and reduced snowfall and snowpack levels, amplifying deficits in soil moisture and runoff despite uncertain precipitation changes. Over the next century, projections indicate that warming will increase drought risk and severity across much of the subtropics and mid-latitudes in both hemispheres, a consequence of regional precipitation declines and widespread warming. For many regions, however, the magnitude, robustness, and even direction of climate change-forced trends in drought depends on how drought is defined, with often large differences across indicators of precipitation, soil moisture, runoff, and vegetation health. Increasing confidence in climate change projections of drought and the associated impacts will likely depend on resolving uncertainties in processes that are currently poorly constrained (e.g., land-atmosphere interactions, terrestrial vegetation) and improved consideration of the role for human policies and management in ameliorating and adapting to changes in drought risk.

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The authors thank two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments and Anne Van Loon for providing feedback on Fig. 1. Lamont contribution number #8215.


Support for BIC comes from the NASA Modeling, Analysis, and Prediction program. JSM is supported by The Earth Institute of Columbia University and NSF Award AGS-1243204 (“Collaborative Research: EaSM2–Linking Near Term Future Changes in Weather and Hydroclimate in Western North America to Adaptation for Ecosystem and Water Management”). KJA is supported by grants from the US National Science Foundation Paleo Perspectives on Climate Change program (P2C2; AGS-1304262 and AGS-1501856).

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Cook, B.I., Mankin, J.S. & Anchukaitis, K.J. Climate Change and Drought: From Past to Future. Curr Clim Change Rep 4, 164–179 (2018).

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  • Drought
  • Climate change
  • Paleoclimate
  • Detection and attribution