Nav: Home

NASA study: Human influence on global droughts goes back 100 years

May 01, 2019

Human-generated greenhouse gases and atmospheric particles were affecting global drought risk as far back as the early 20th century, according to a study from NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) in New York City.

The study, published in the journal Nature, compared predicted and real-world soil moisture data to look for human influences on global drought patterns in the 20th century. Climate models predict that a human "fingerprint" - a global pattern of regional drying and wetting characteristic of the climate response to greenhouse gases - should be visible early in the 1900's and increase over time as emissions increased. Using observational data such as precipitation and historical data reconstructed from tree rings, the researchers found that the real-world data began to align with the fingerprint within the first half of the 20th century.

The team said the study is the first to provide historical evidence connecting human-generated emissions and drought at near-global scales, lending credibility to forward-looking models that predict such a connection. According to the new research, the fingerprint is likely to grow stronger over the next few decades, potentially leading to severe human consequences.

Searching for human fingerprints

The study's key drought indicator was the Palmer Drought Severity Index, or PDSI. The PDSI averages soil moisture over the summer months using data such as precipitation, air temperature and runoff. While today NASA measures soil moisture from space, these measurements only date back to 1980. The PDSI provides researchers with average soil moisture over long periods of time, making it especially useful for research on climate change in the past.

The team also used drought atlases: Maps of where and when droughts happened throughout history, calculated from tree rings. Tree rings' thickness indicates wet and dry years across their lifespan, providing an ancient record to supplement written and recorded data.

"These records go back centuries," said lead author Kate Marvel, an associate research scientist at GISS and Columbia University. "We have a comprehensive picture of global drought conditions that stretch back way into history, and they are amazingly high quality."

Taken together, modern soil moisture measurements and tree ring-based records of the past create a data set that the team compared to the models. They also calibrated their data against climate models run with atmospheric conditions similar to those in 1850, before the Industrial Revolution brought increases in greenhouse gases and air pollution.

"We were pretty surprised that you can see this human fingerprint, this human climate change signal, emerge in the first half of the 20th century," said Ben Cook, climate scientist at GISS and Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in New York City. Cook co-led the study with Marvel.

The story changed briefly between 1950 and 1975, as the atmosphere became cooler and wetter. The team believes this was due to aerosols, or particles in the atmosphere. Before the passage of air quality legislation, industry expelled vast quantities of smoke, soot, sulfur dioxide and other particles that researchers believe blocked sunlight and counteracted greenhouse gases' warming effects during this period. Aerosols are harder to model than greenhouse gases, however, so while they are the most likely culprit, the team cautioned that further research is necessary to establish a definite link.

After 1975, as pollution declined, global drought patterns began to trend back toward the fingerprint. It does not yet match closely enough for the team to say statistically that the signal has reappeared, but they agree that the data trends in that direction.

Reaching a verdict

What made this study innovative was seeing the big picture of global drought, Marvel said. Individual regions can have significant natural variability year to year, making it difficult to tell whether a drying trend is due to human activity. Combining many regions into a global drought atlas meant there was a stronger signal if droughts happened in several places simultaneously.

"If you look at the fingerprint, you can say, 'Is it getting dry in the areas it should be getting drier? Is it getting wetter in the areas it should be getting wetter?'" she said. "It's climate detective work, like an actual fingerprint at a crime scene is a unique pattern."

Previous assessments from national and international climate organizations have not directly linked trends in global-scale drought patterns to human activities, Cook said, mainly due to lack of data supporting that link. He suggests that, by demonstrating a human fingerprint on droughts in the past, this study provides evidence that human activities could continue to influence droughts in the future.

"Part of our motivation was to ask, with all these advances in our understanding of natural versus human caused climate changes, climate modeling and paleoclimate, have we advanced the science to where we can start to detect human impact on droughts?" Cook said. His answer: "Yes."

Models predict that droughts will become more frequent and severe as temperatures rise, potentially causing food and water shortages, human health impacts, destructive wildfires and conflicts between peoples competing for resources.

"Climate change is not just a future problem," said Cook. "This shows it's already affecting global patterns of drought, hydroclimate, trends, variability -- it's happening now. And we expect these trends to continue, as long as we keep warming the world."
-end-
By: Jessica Merzdorf
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.

NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

Related Climate Change Articles:

The black forest and climate change
Silver and Douglas firs could replace Norway spruce in the long run due to their greater resistance to droughts.
For some US counties, climate change will be particularly costly
A highly granular assessment of the impacts of climate change on the US economy suggests that each 1°Celsius increase in temperature will cost 1.2 percent of the country's gross domestic product, on average.
Climate change label leads to climate science acceptance
A new Cornell University study finds that labels matter when it comes to acceptance of climate science.
Was that climate change?
A new four-step 'framework' aims to test the contribution of climate change to record-setting extreme weather events.
It's more than just climate change
Accurately modeling climate change and interactive human factors -- including inequality, consumption, and population -- is essential for the effective science-based policies and measures needed to benefit and sustain current and future generations.
Climate change scientists should think more about sex
Climate change can have a different impact on male and female fish, shellfish and other marine animals, with widespread implications for the future of marine life and the production of seafood.
Climate change prompts Alaska fish to change breeding behavior
A new University of Washington study finds that one of Alaska's most abundant freshwater fish species is altering its breeding patterns in response to climate change, which could impact the ecology of northern lakes that already acutely feel the effects of a changing climate.
Uncertainties related to climate engineering limit its use in curbing climate change
Climate engineering refers to the systematic, large-scale modification of the environment using various climate intervention techniques.
Public holds polarized views about climate change and trust in climate scientists
There are gaping divisions in Americans' views across every dimension of the climate debate, including causes and cures for climate change and trust in climate scientists and their research, according to a new Pew Research Center survey.
The psychology behind climate change denial
In a new thesis in psychology, Kirsti Jylhä at Uppsala University has studied the psychology behind climate change denial.

Related Climate Change Reading:

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Digital Manipulation
Technology has reshaped our lives in amazing ways. But at what cost? This hour, TED speakers reveal how what we see, read, believe — even how we vote — can be manipulated by the technology we use. Guests include journalist Carole Cadwalladr, consumer advocate Finn Myrstad, writer and marketing professor Scott Galloway, behavioral designer Nir Eyal, and computer graphics researcher Doug Roble.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#529 Do You Really Want to Find Out Who's Your Daddy?
At least some of you by now have probably spit into a tube and mailed it off to find out who your closest relatives are, where you might be from, and what terrible diseases might await you. But what exactly did you find out? And what did you give away? In this live panel at Awesome Con we bring in science writer Tina Saey to talk about all her DNA testing, and bioethicist Debra Mathews, to determine whether Tina should have done it at all. Related links: What FamilyTreeDNA sharing genetic data with police means for you Crime solvers embraced...