Contribution of anthropogenic warming to California drought during 2012-2015
Abstract:California is currently in its fourth year of a drought that has caused record-breaking rates of ground-water extraction, fallowed agricultural fields, changes to water-use policy, dangrously low lake levels, and ecological disturbances such as large wildfires and bark-beetle outbreaks. A common and important question is: to what degree can the severity of this drought in California, or of any drought globally, be blamed on human-caused global warming? Here we present the most comprehensive accounting of the natural and anthropogenic contributions to drought variability to date, and we provide an in-depth evaluation of the recent extreme drought in California.
A suite of climate datasets and multiple representations of atmospheric moisture demand are used to calculate many estimates of the self-calibrated Palmer Drought Severity Index, a proxy for near-surface soil moisture, across California from 1901–2014 at high spatial resolution. Based on the ensemble of calculations, California drought conditions were record-breaking in 2014, but probably not record-breaking in 2012–2014, contrary to prior findings. Regionally, the 2012–2014 drought was record-breaking in the agriculturally important southern Central Valley and highly populated coastal areas. Contributions of individual climate variables to recent drought are also examined, including the temperature component associated with anthropogenic warming. Precipitation is the primary driver of drought variability but anthropogenic warming is estimated to have accounted for 8–27% of the observed drought anomaly in 2012–2014 and 5–18% in 2014. Analyses will be updated through 2015 for this presentation. Although natural climate variability has often masked the background effects of warming on drought, the background effect is becoming increasingly detectable and important, particularly by increased the overall likelihood of extreme California droughts. The dramatic effects of the current drought in California, combined with knowledge that the background warming-driven drought trend will continue to intensify amidst a high degree of natural climate variability, highlight the critical need for a long-term outlook on drought resilience even though wet conditions are likely to soon mitigate the current drought event.