The science of extremes


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 weather
sufficiently prolonged for the lack of water to cause serious hydrologic imbalance in the affected area" is the US Geological Survey definition).

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 21st Century in some seasons and areas, due to reduced precipitation and/or increased evapotranspiration… …This applies to regions including southern Europe and the Mediterranean region, central Europe, 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 report summary) In contrast, other areas, including central North America and northwestern Australia have experienced decreases in drought frequency and intensity in the latter half of the 20th Century. 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 the same 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 may linger 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, its severity. “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 quantifying the impact of a drought is particularly tough. (American Meteorological Society 1997)

Human activities may not only influence the intensity of a drought, but may also cause droughts to occur. Over-cultivation, overgrazing, and deforestation exacerbated desertification (the spread of inhospitable dry, windy, water-poor desert conditions) and, consequently, drought conditions in parts of Africa and Asia (Dregne, 1986). Humans are responsible for a pronounced hydrological drought in the Aral Sea Basin in Central Asia ( Micklin, 2007).

Apparent impacts of drought:  Heat waves and drought may create the conditions for wildfire or make one worse, as in Feburary 2009 when the Australian state of Victoria was in the midst of a record heat wave and a drought that had lasted a decade. Natural- and human-ignited fires broke out around the city of Melbourne and the surrounding bush. Numerous tree species across the European continent experienced increased mortality in the years following the 2003 autumn drought. (Allen et al.)

(From Allen et al: White dots indicate tree die-offs from climate stress: background color shows different stressors.)  A drought between 2004 and 2005 triggered the shift in location of zooplankton communities in the southern European estuary along the coast of the Mondego Estuary in Portugal. (Marques et al., 2007)


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