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U.S. heavy precipitation events are increasing, but drought is not increasing

By: Dr. Jeff Masters, 2:04 PM GMT on March 17, 2009

Last week, I introduced the National Climatic Data Center's Climate Extremes Index, which uses temperature and precipitation records to see if the U.S. climate is getting more extreme. Today, I'll focus on how the drought and precipitation extremes that go into the Climate Extremes Index have changed over the past century. The three precipitation-related factors to go into the Climate Extremes Index are:

1) The sum of (a) percentage of the United States in severe drought (equivalent to the lowest tenth percentile) based on the Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI) and (b) percentage of the United States with severe moisture surplus (equivalent to the highest tenth percentile) based on the PDSI.

2) Twice the value of the percentage of the United States with a much greater than normal proportion of precipitation derived from extreme (equivalent to the highest tenth percentile) 1-day precipitation events.

3) The sum of (a) percentage of the United States with a much greater than normal number of days with precipitation and (b) percentage of the United States with a much greater than normal number of days without precipitation.

Items 1 and 3 have shown no change in annual average value over the past century, but there has been a marked increase in the number of heavy 1-day precipitation events in recent decades. Thus, the record values of the Climate Extremes Index in recent years is due to a combination of the increase in heavy 1-day precipitation events, plus the increase in maximum and minimum temperatures.

Figure 1. The Annual Climate Extremes Index (CEI) for heavy 1-day precipitation events shows that these events, on average, have affected 10% of the U.S. over the past century (black line). However, heavy precipitation events have increased recently, with seven of the top ten years on record having occurred since 1995. Image credit: National Climatic Data Center.

Heavy precipitation events
Global warming theory predicts that global precipitation will increase, and that heavy precipitation events--the ones most likely to cause flash flooding--will also increase. This occurs because as the climate warms, evaporation of moisture from the oceans increases, resulting in more water vapor in the air. According to the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, water vapor in the global atmosphere has increased by about 5% over the 20th century, and 4% since 1970. The Climate Extremes Index plot for extreme 1-day precipitation events (Figure 1) does indeed show a sharp increase in heavy precipitation events in recent decades, with seven of the top ten years for these events occurring since 1995. The increases in heavy precipitation events have primarily come in the Spring and Summer, when the most damaging floods typically occur. This mirrors the results of Groisman et al. (2004), who found an increase in annual average U.S. precipitation of 7% over the past century, which has led to a 14% increase in heavy (top 5%) and 20% increase in very heavy (top 1%) precipitation events. Kunkel et al. (2003) also found an increase in heavy precipitation events over the U.S. in recent decades, but noted that heavy precipitation events were nearly as frequent at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, though the data is not as reliable back then.

Drought and extreme wetness
Global warming theory predicts that although global precipitation should increase in a warmer climate, droughts will also increase in intensity, areal coverage, and frequency (Dai et al., 2004). This occurs because when the normal variability of weather patterns brings a period of dry weather to a region, the increased temperatures due to global warming will intensify drought conditions by causing more evaporation and drying up of vegetation. Increased drought is my number one concern regarding climate change for both the U.S. and the world in the coming century. Two of the three costliest U.S. weather disasters since 1980 have been droughts--the droughts of 1988 and 1980, which cost $71 billion and $55 billion, respectively. The heat waves associated with these droughts claimed over 17,000 lives, according to the National Climatic Data Center publication, Billion-Dollar Weather Disasters. Furthermore, the drought of the 1930s Dust Bowl, which left over 500,000 people homeless and devastated large areas of the Midwest, is regarded to be the third costliest U.S. weather disaster on record, behind Katrina and the 1988 drought. (Ricky Rood has an excellent book on the Dust Bowl that he recommends in his latest blog post).

Figure 2. The Annual Climate Extremes Index (CEI) for drought. The worst U.S. droughts on record occurred in the 1930s and 1950s. There has been no trend in the amount of the U.S. covered by drought conditions (blue bars) or by abnormally moist conditions (red bars) over the past century. About 10% of the U.S. is typically covered by abnormally dry or wet conditions (black lines). Image credit: National Climatic Data Center.

The good news is that the intensity and areal coverage of U.S. droughts has not increased in recent decades (blue bars in Figure 2). The portion of the U.S. experiencing abnormal drought and exceptionally wet conditions has remained nearly constant at 10% over the past century. A recent paper by Andreadis et al., 2006, summed up 20th century drought in the U.S. thusly: "Droughts have, for the most part, become shorter, less frequent, and cover a smaller portion of the country over the last century. The main exception is the Southwest and parts of the interior of the West, where, notwithstanding increased precipitation (and in some cases increased soil moisture and runoff), increased temperature has led to trends in drought characteristics that are mostly opposite to those for the rest of the country especially in the case of drought duration and severity, which have increased."

The rest of the globe has not been so lucky. Globally, Dai and Trenberth (2004) showed that areas experiencing the three highest categories of drought--severe, extreme, and exceptional--more than doubled (from ~12 to 30%) since the 1970s, with a large jump in the early 1980s due to an El Niño-related precipitation decrease over land, and subsequent increases primarily due to warming temperatures. According to the Global Drought Monitor, 50 million people world-wide currently live in areas experiencing the highest level of drought (exceptional).

The future of U.S. drought
As the climate continues to warm, I expect the frequency, severity, and areal coverage of droughts to increase over the U.S. We're certainly off to a dry start in 2009--the period January - February this year was the driest such period in U.S. history, according to the National Climatic Data Center.

Andreadis, K. M. Lettenmaier, D. P., "Trends in 20th century drought over the continental United States", Geo. Res. Letters 33, 10, L10403, DOI 10.1029/2006GL025711

Dai A., K.E. Trenberth, and T. Qian, 2004: A global data set of Palmer Drought Severity Index for 18702002: Relationship with soil moisture and effects of surface warming", J. Hydrometeorol., 5, 11171130.

Gleason, K.L., J.H. Lawrimore, D.H. Levinson, T.R. Karl, and D.J. Karoly, 2008: "A Revised U.S. Climate Extremes Index", J. Climate, 21, 2124-2137.

Groisman, P.Y., R.W. Knight, T.R. Karl, D.R. Easterling, B. Sun, and J.H. Lawrimore, 2004, "Contemporary Changes of the Hydrological Cycle over the Contiguous United States: Trends Derived from In Situ Observations," J. Hydrometeor., 5, 64-85.

Kunkel, K. E., D. R. Easterling, K. Redmond, and K. Hubbard, 2003, "Temporal variations of extreme precipitation events in the United States: 1895-2000", Geophys. Res. Lett., 30(17), 1900, doi:10.1029/2003GL018052.

Jeff Masters

Climate Change

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.