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To Extremes Dossier on Drought

To Extremes Dossier on Drought

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Published by Eli Kintisch

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Published by: Eli Kintisch on Dec 30, 2011
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05/06/2012

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TOEXTREMES.ORG 1
 
The science of extremes:
Drought
 
Drivers of drought:
 
The two main drivers of drought are
deficits in precipitation levels
and
high rates of 
 “evapotranspiration” —
the evaporation of moisture from surface water (as well as land)and the loss of moisture from the tissues of plants (called transpiration).
These create:
 
hydrological drought 
 
 —
reduced amounts of streamflow, lake, or groundwater levels.
 
meteorological drought 
 
 —
deficit of precipitation. "A period of abnormally dry weathersufficiently prolonged for the lack of water to cause serious hydrologic imbalance in theaffected area" is the US Geological Surveydefinition).
 
soil moisture drought 
(a.k.a. agricultural drought).
Drought in the warming world of the future:
 
 “There is
medium (some?) confidence 
that droughts will intensify in the 21
st
Century in some seasons and areas,
due to reduced precipitation and/or increasedevapotranspiration
 
 
This applies to regions including southern Europe and the Mediterranean region, centralEurope, central North America, Central America and Mexico, northeast Brazil, and southern Africa. Elsewhere there is overall
low confidence 
because of inconsistent projections of drought changes
” 
(Extreme Events reportsummary)
 
 
In contrast, other areas, including central North America and northwestern Australia haveexperienced
decreases
in drought frequency and intensity in the latter half of the 20thCentury.
 
Historical climate studies show that recent droughts
are not 
unprecedented.
 
Impacts are hard to predict:
 
Two regions experiencing equal levels of reduced rainfall will not be impacted in thesame way.
 
Drought is different from other natural disasters in
three ways
:
 
 “It is a ’creeping phenomenon,’ making its onset and end difficult to determine. The
effects of drought accumulate slowly over a considerable period of time and maylinger for years after the termination of the event.
 
 
 “Second, the absence of a precise and universally accepted definition of drought
adds to the confusion about whether or not a drought exists and, if it does, itsseverity.
 
 
 “Third, the societal impacts of drought are less obvious and extend over a larger
geographical area than damages that result from other natural hazards. Drought
seldom results in structural damage.” So quantifyi
ng the impact of a drought isparticularly tough. ( American Meteorological Society 1997)
 
 
Human activities may not only influence the intensity of a drought, but may also causedroughts to occur.
 
Over-cultivation, overgrazing, and deforestation exacerbated desertification (the spreadof inhospitable dry, windy, water-poor desert conditions) and, consequently, droughtconditions in parts of Africa and Asia (Dregne, 1986).
 
Humans are responsible for a pronounced hydrological drought in the Aral Sea Basin inCentral Asia (Micklin, 2007).
 Apparent impacts of drought:
 
Heat waves and drought may create the conditions for wildfire or make one worse, as inFeburary 2009 when the Australian state of Victoria was in the midst of a record heatwave and a drought that had lasted a decade. Natural- and human-ignited fires brokeout around the city of Melbourne and the surrounding bush.
 
Numerous tree species across the European continent experienced increased mortality inthe years following the 2003 autumn drought. ( Allen et al.) 

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