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We're Already Topping Dust Bowl Temperatures -- Imagine What'll Happen if We Fail to Stop 10°F Warming

The Earth has warmed only a bit more than 1°F since the catastrophic Dust Bowl, and we are poised to warm an astounding 9-11°F this century.
 
 
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This heat wave has broken thousands of temperature records. Climate Central  reported Satuday, “In many cases, records that had stood since the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s have been equaled or exceeded, and this event is likely to go down in history as one of America’s worst.”

In general, we expect the greatest number of temperature records to be set during a widespread drought. I explained why that is that the case in my Nature article last year on “The next dust bowl” ( full text here):

Warming causes greater evaporation and, once the ground is dry, the Sun’s energy goes into baking the soil, leading to a further increase in air temperature. That is why, for instance, so many temperature records were set for the United States in the 1930s Dust Bowl; and why, in 2011, drought-stricken Texas saw the hottest summer ever recorded for a US state.

Why is this bad news? Because the Earth has warmed only a bit more than 1°F since the catastrophic Dust Bowl — and we are  poised to warm an astounding 9-11°F this century if we stay anywhere near our current greenhouse gas emissions path.

Much as our current monster heat wave has been made worse by human activity (man-made global warming) so too was the Dust Bowl — but in that case it was bad agricultural practices. As NOAA’s  discussion of “ The Dust Bowl Drought” explains:

The drought came in three waves, 1934, 1936, and 1939-40, but some regions of the High Plains experienced drought conditions for as many as eight years. The “dust bowl” effect was caused by sustained drought conditions compounded by years of land management practices that left topsoil susceptible to the forces of the wind.

For discussion of some of those land management practices,  see here.

Unfortunately, while we have improved much of our land management since then, we have chosen to ignore decades of warning by climate scientists that unrestricted emissions of greenhouse gases would cause ever-worsening droughts. A 1990 Journal of Geophysical Researchstudy, “ Potential evapotranspiration and the likelihood of future drought,” projected that severe to extreme drought in the United States, then occurring every 20 years or so, could become an every-other-year phenomenon by mid-century.

Aiguo Dai of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, in his 2010 study, “ Drought under global warming: a review,” had a similar conclusion. I will blog shortly on his updated findings, but here is a rough representation of where his analysis projects the PDSI [Palmer Drought Severity Index] will be soon after mid-century, again, if we don’t dramatically reverse greenhouse gas emissions trends:

The PDSI in a moderate emissions scenario soon after mid-century. In the Great Plains during the Dust Bowl, the PDSI apparently spiked very briefly to -6, but otherwise rarely exceeded -3 for the decade (see  here).

Dai found that:

By the end of the century, many populated areas, including parts of the United States and much of the Mediterranean and Africa, could face readings in the range of -4 to -10. Such decadal averages would be almost unprecedented.

Whereas in the 1930s, you could certainly make a case that people didn’t know just how destructive their land management practices were. But we have been warned again and again that we face ever-worsening warming and drought conditions. Here are a few more studies:

The serious hydrological changes and impacts known to have occurred in both historic and prehistoric times over North America reflect large-scale changes in the climate system that can develop in a matter of years and, in the case of the more severe past megadroughts, persist for decades. Such hydrological changes fit the definition of abrupt change because they occur faster than the time scales needed for human and natural systems to adapt, leading to substantial disruptions in those systems. In the Southwest, for example, the models project a permanent drying by the mid-21st century that reaches the level of aridity seen in historical droughts, and a quarter of the projections may reach this level of aridity much earlier.

 
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