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Examination of Recent Discrepancies in Drought Modeling

Jeffrey Taylor-Kantz and Colin Topper


Temperature increase coupled with other changes in environmental factors due

to global warming threatens to both reduce local precipitation and increase local
evaporation. These environmental factors taken together may dramatically increase the
frequency and severity of droughts. Climate change driven droughts are expected to
have significant impact on food production, which will complicate the current global
food crisis. In order to prepare for the upcoming climatic changes, accurate predictions
of drought intensity, duration, and spatial coverage are necessary.

Sadly the link between drought and global warming is not as clear as one might
believe. There are many more factors impacting soil moisture than temperature.
Previous studies investigating the link between drought prevalence and severity, and
climate change have been contradictory and tend to overestimate the effect of climate
change on drought formation.

Even though previous projections of global drought increase may have been
overestimated[5] there is still a clear global increase in aridity and drought. This trend
will have significant impact on human life over the course of the next couple of


To fully grasp what we mean when we discuss changes in drought, one must
understand how droughts are quantified. Droughts have three main aspects that are
measured: intensity, duration, and spatial coverage[2].

In order to accurately forecast the intensity and duration of future droughts,

there needs to be a quantitative way to describe droughts. In our attempt to reconcile
contradictory findings we must adopt a drought index to compare results.

Various drought indices have been developed over the years in order to monitor
and quantify drought. The Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI), Crop Moisture Index
(CMI), Standardized Precipitation Index (SPI), Soil Moisture Drought Index (SMDI),
and Vegetation Condition Index (VCI) are some common examples[4].
One of the most commonly used indices is the Palmer Drought Severity Index
(PDSI). Developed in the 1960’s, it is still widespread and is relatively easy to use[2].
Because of the PDSI’s widespread use and relatively small computational complexity we
will be using it for comparison purposes in this paper.

Previous studies utilized the Thornthwaite method to calculate PDSI, but this
method predicted an unreasonable increase in drought frequency[1]. In this paper, where
possible, the more appropriate Penman–Montheith equation will be used to generate
the PDSI. The potential evapotranspiration Ep, or loss of moisture from the soil to the
atmosphere in mm per day, is given by:

where λ, Δ, and γ are constants pertaining to the latent heat of vaporization of water, the
relationship between saturated vapor pressure and temperature, and the relationship
between the partial pressure of water in air to air temperature.

The independent variables or driving factors of evapotranspiration are net radiation per
day Rn, wind speed U, and the vapor pressure deficit D[1].

The potential relationship between drought and climate change is quite clear
from this formula. Increased evapotranspiration leads to decreased moisture and
drought. Over the coming centuries we can expect significant changes in weather
patterns affecting wind speed and the vapor pressure deficit. We can also expect a
significant change in atmospheric composition which will affect the net radiation of the
area losing moisture. These changes threaten to dramatically alter the
evapotranspiration of the earth on a global and regional scale. All that remains to
determine is the magnitude and direction of the changes to drought formation forced by
climate change.

Results and Key Figures

Figure 1[3]

This figure shows three long-term trends from 1950 to 2010. Part a shows the
trend in the annual mean of observed precipitation and part b shows the trend in the
annual mean of calculated PDSI, with the more negative numbers (and deeper red on
the map) indicating a more severe dry spell or drought. Part c shows a smoothed time
scale of drought area as a percentage of global land area calculated based on PDSI with
observed surface warming (green line) and without observed surface warming (red line).
This figure demonstrates that many areas across the globe have become more
plagued by drought over the last 50 years and that the percent of total global land area
suffering from drought has been increasing relatively quickly. While other studies have
shown that earlier reports of global drought assessments have been overestimated[5], the
fact remains that drought has been increasing significantly over the past 50 years.

Figure 2[3]

This figure shows the projections of future changes in soil moisture and PDSI.
Part a shows the percentage change of soil moisture of 1980-1999 vs. projected change
in moisture from 2080-2099. Part b shows the mean projected PDSI from 2090-2099.
Higher magnitude negative numbers (and darker red on the map) indicate more severe
droughts, with a value of -3 or below indicating a severe to extreme drought.

According to these models, drought is going to get very severe in many areas
across the globe, such the United States, Mexico, South America, western Europe, and
southern Africa.


Levels of drought are projected to increase over southeast Asia, Australia,

southern Europe, most of the Americas, and southern and central Africa as greenhouse
gas-induced global warming continues in the 21st century[3]. The models also suggest
severe drought conditions by the later half of the century in many areas with a very high
population density including Europe, the eastern United States, Brazil, and southeast

If these estimates turn out to be accurate, it could have huge and devastating
impacts on large numbers of people. It would certainly disrupt agriculture around the
world. While some of the wealthier nations may be able to adapt to the new conditions
with advanced irrigation systems (though at a significant cost), poorer nations will
suffer great economic losses. If we want to avoid great monetary and human cost, we
will have to explore methods to stabilize atmospheric carbon and limit the increase in

1. Burke, Eleanor J., et al. “Modeling the Recent Evolution of Global Drought and
Projections for the Twenty-First Century with the Hadley Centre Climate
Model.” Journal of Hydrometeorology, vol. 7, no. 5, 2006, pp. 1113–1125.,

2. Dai, Aiguo. “Drought under Global Warming: a Review.” Wiley Interdisciplinary

Reviews: Climate Change, vol. 2, no. 1, 2010, pp. 45–65.,

3. Dai, Aiguo. “Increasing Drought under Global Warming in Observations and

Models.” Nature Climate Change, vol. 3, no. 1, 2012, pp. 52–58.,

4. Mishra, Ashok K, and Vijay P Singh. “Drought Modeling – A Review.” Journal of

Hydrology, vol. 403, no. 1-2, 6 June 2011, pp. 157–175.,

5. Sheffield, Justin, et al. “Little Change in Global Drought over the Past 60 Years.”
Nature, vol. 491, no. 7424, 2012, pp. 435–438., doi:10.1038/nature11575.

6. Strzepek, Kenneth, et al. “Characterizing Changes in Drought Risk for the United
States from Climate Change.” Environmental Research Letters, vol. 5, no.
4, Jan. 2010, p. 044012., doi:10.1088/1748-9326/5/4/044012.