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Droughts to Become More Severe, Frequent Over Nearly a Third of Earth: Study

By Terrell Johnson
Published: April 1, 2014

As much as a third of the planet will likely experience more intense and more frequent droughts by the end of the century if global warming proceeds unchecked, according to a study released last month.

That's because warming temperatures will mean both less rainfall and less soil moisture for many of the affected areas mentioned in the study, titled "Global Warming and 21st Century Drying" and published in the March issue of the scientific journal Climate Dynamics.

Even though climate change is forecast to bring more rainfall to certain parts of the world – a phenomenon usually explained as the dry regions of the world will get drier, while the wet will get wetter – the study used the latest climate model simulations to show how higher evaporation rates can lead to droughts even in areas that see an uptick in rainfall.

(MORE: 5 Ways Climate Change Will Disrupt Your Life)

The study looked at a pair of drought indices – the Palmer Drought Severity Index, commonly used to measure U.S. droughts, and the Standardized Precipitation Evapotranspiration Index – to estimate warming's impact on both changing rainfall and drying patterns worldwide.

About 12 percent of the planet will be susceptible to drought by 2100 through changes in precipitation patterns alone, the study found. That number rises to about 30 percent – an area that spans large parts of the western U.S., Europe and China – when evaporation rates are factored in.

"We know from basic physics that warmer temperatures will help to dry things out," said Benjamin Cook, the study's lead author and a climate scientist at Columbia University and NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, in an interview with The Hindu.

(MORE: World's 18 Most Water-Stressed Rivers)

This not only will mean worse drought for areas already subject to it, the study's authors add, but also in areas that are forecast to become wetter.

"For agriculture, the moisture balance in the soil is what really matters," said study co-author Jason Smerdon, a climate scientist with Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. "If rain increases slightly but temperatures also increase, drought is a potential consequence," he told The Hindu.

See the full study at Climate Dynamics.

MORE: The World's Most Historic Places in 2,000 Years

The Statue of Liberty Today

The Statue of Liberty Today

Above, we used Google Earth to visualize what 15 of the sites in the study might look like in the future, if its sea level rise projections come to pass. Thanks to Andrew David Thaler's DrownYourTown for the template to create these visualizations. (Photo by Medioimages/Photodisc/Thinkstock)

  • The Statue of Liberty Today
  • The Statue of Liberty With 15 Meters of Sea Level Rise
  • The Statue of Liberty With 35 Meters of Sea Level Rise
  • Venice Today
  • Venice With 15 Meters of Sea Level Rise
  • Sydney Opera House Today
  • Sydney Opera House With 35 Meters of Sea Level Rise
  • Amsterdam Today
  • Amsterdam With 15 Meters of Sea Level Rise
  • Amsterdam With 35 Meters of Sea Level Rise
  • Tower of London Today
  • Tower of London With 15 Meters of Sea Level Rise
  • Tower of London With 35 Meters of Sea Level Rise
  • Tower of Hercules Today
  • Tower of Hercules With 35 Meters of Sea Level Rise
  • Independence Hall Today
  • Independence Hall With 15 Meters of Sea Level Rise
  • Independence Hall With 35 Meters of Sea Level Rise
  • Itsukushima Shrine Today
  • Itsukushima Shrine With 15 Meters of Sea Level Rise
  • Itsukushima Shrine With 35 Meters of Sea Level Rise
  • Tower of Belem Today
  • Tower of Belem with 15 Meters of Sea Level Rise
  • Tower of Belem With 35 Meters of Sea Level Rise
  • Westminster Abbey Today
  • Westminster Abbey With 15 Meters of Sea Level Rise
  • Westminster Abbey With 35 Meters of Sea Level Rise
  • Mont Saint-Michel Today
  • Mont Saint-Michel With 15 Meters of Sea Level Rise
  • Mont Saint-Michel With 35 Meters of Sea Level Rise
  • Leaning Tower of Pisa Today
  • Leaning Tower of Pisa With 15 Meters of Sea Level Rise
  • Leaning Tower of Pisa With 35 Meters of Sea Level Rise

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