A paper just out now in PNAS by Noah Diffenbaugh, Daniel Swain, and Danielle Touma shows that “Anthropogenic warming has increased drought risk in California.” From the abstract:
… We find that although there has not been a substantial change in the probability of either negative or moderately negative precipitation anomalies in recent decades, the occurrence of drought years has been greater in the past two decades than in the preceding century. In addition, the probability that precipitation deficits co-occur with warm conditions and the probability that precipitation deficits produce drought have both increased. Climate model experiments with and without anthropogenic forcings reveal that human activities have increased the probability that dry precipitation years are also warm. Further, a large ensemble of climate model realizations reveals that additional global warming over the next few decades is very likely to create ?100% probability that any annual-scale dry period is also extremely warm. We therefore conclude that anthropogenic warming is increasing the probability of co-occurring warm–dry conditions like those that have created the acute human and ecosystem impacts associated with the “exceptional” 2012–2014 drought in California.
Michael Mann and Peter Gleick have written a commentary for PNAS to accompany that research. The graphic at the top of the post is from that study. They note:
California is experiencing extreme drought. Measured both by precipitation and by run- off in the Sacramento and San Joaquin river basins, 10 of the past 14 y have been below normal, and the past 3 y have been the driest and hottest in the full instrumental record. A plot of temperature and precipitation anom- alies over the full instrumental record from 1895 through November 2014 shows that the 3-y period ending in 2014 was by far the hottest and driest on record (Fig. 1). As of the publication of this commentary, the state appears headed into a fourth consec- utive year of water shortfall, leading to massive groundwater overdraft, cutbacks to farmers, reductions in hydroelectricity gen- eration, and a range of voluntary and man- datory urban water restrictions.
A number of studies have examined the California drought to try to determine if it was “caused by” (or otherwise affected by) human greenhouse gas pollution. These studies vary in their level of attribution, but increasingly it is becoming clear that anthropogenic global warming has a very big hand in this.
Mann and Gleick tackle the problem of defining drought. There are multiple ways to do so, and they relate to different causes. The plethora of definitions and relevant variables allows for a given study to miss any global warming effect by picking certain factors and ignoring others. Studies that look mainly at inputs to the hydrological system (i.e., rainfall) tend to miss the output part of the equation, including evaporation, which is exacerbated by a warming climate. Mann and Gleick point out that the Diffenbaugh study adds significant weight to the idea that anthropogenic climate change has increased the frequency, magnitude, and duration of California’s droughts. Perhaps more importantly, the Diffenbaugh study suggests “the emergence of a climatic regime in which all future dry years coincide with warmer conditions.”
Gleick told me, “The scientific evidence showing the growing influence of climate changes on extreme events around the world, including the ongoing California drought, continues to pile up. The clearest piece of this is the record high, and increasing, temperatures, which directly influence the availability and demand for water, but there is also growing evidence that climate change is influencing pressure dynamics and atmospheric circulation patterns that either bring, or divert, water from the west coast of the United States.”
So, the current drought in California is linked to human induced climate change, and in the future, this will be a more common phenomenon than it has in the base, according to the best available science. But what about other effects of climate change? I asked Michael Mann about the relationship between California Drought and his recent study showing that we should soon be entering a period (over the next couple of decades) during which heat that has been hiding in the oceans will be leaving it’s watery milieu and joining us up here on the surface. He told me, “Here is the linkage I think is most relevant: the “faux pause”, in our recent study, was closely tied to the predominance of La Nina-like conditions in the tropical Pacific for a large part of the past decade, and these same conditions are closely linked with California drought (La Nina years tend to be drought years in California, while El Nino years tend to be wet years—though this doesn’t necessarily hold true for every single event). So one might imagine that a return to a greater tendency for El Nino-like conditions in the tropical Pacific over the next decade or two (which would spell an end to the “Faux Pause”) could actually be a mitigating effect as far as California drought is concerned. A bit counter-intuitive, but that’s best assessment here.”