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Climate change and the aridification of North America

Jonathan T. Overpeck, Bradley H. Udall | May 19, 2020
Summary

Discussions of droughts and their impacts often center on the lack of precipitation, just as assessments of hydrologic impacts under a changing climate most often focus on how average precipitation in a given locale is likely to change in the future. Within climate science, however, focus has begun to include the growing role warming temperatures are playing as a potent driver of greater aridity: hotter climate extremes; drier soil conditions; more severe drought; and the impacts of hydrologic stress on rivers, forests, agriculture, and other systems. This shift in the hydrologic paradigm is most clear in the American Southwest, where declining flows in the region’s two most important rivers, the Colorado and Rio Grande, have been attributed in part to increasing temperatures caused by human activities, most notably the burning of fossil fuels. Warmer summers are also likely to reduce flows in the Columbia River, as well as in rivers along the Sierra Nevada in California. Now, an important study [Increased drought severity tracks warming in the United States’ largest river basin, J.T. Martin et al] documents how warming is also causing flow declines in the northern Rocky Mountains and in the largest river basin in the United States, the Missouri. This work further highlights the mechanisms behind the temperature-driven river flow declines and places more focus on how anthropogenic climate warming is progressively increasing the risk of hot drought and more arid conditions across an expanding swath of the United States.

Product Description

Discussions of droughts and their impacts often center on the lack of precipitation, just as assessments of hydrologic impacts under a changing climate most often focus on how average precipitation in a given locale is likely to change in the future. Within climate science, however, focus has begun to include the growing role warming temperatures are playing as a potent driver of greater aridity: hotter climate extremes; drier soil conditions; more severe drought; and the impacts of hydrologic stress on rivers, forests, agriculture, and other systems. This shift in the hydrologic paradigm is most clear in the American Southwest, where declining flows in the region’s two most important rivers, the Colorado and Rio Grande, have been attributed in part to increasing temperatures caused by human activities, most notably the burning of fossil fuels. Warmer summers are also likely to reduce flows in the Columbia River, as well as in rivers along the Sierra Nevada in California. Now, an important study [Increased drought severity tracks warming in the United States’ largest river basin, J.T. Martin et al] documents how warming is also causing flow declines in the northern Rocky Mountains and in the largest river basin in the United States, the Missouri. This work further highlights the mechanisms behind the temperature-driven river flow declines and places more focus on how anthropogenic climate warming is progressively increasing the risk of hot drought and more arid conditions across an expanding swath of the United States.

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Keywords:

climate change, drought, water supply forecasting