Articles | Volume 17, issue 5
Research article
 | Highlight paper
07 May 2013
Research article | Highlight paper |  | 07 May 2013

Elusive drought: uncertainty in observed trends and short- and long-term CMIP5 projections

B. Orlowsky and S. I. Seneviratne

Abstract. Recent years have seen a number of severe droughts in different regions around the world, causing agricultural and economic losses, famines and migration. Despite their devastating consequences, the Standardised Precipitation Index (SPI) of these events lies within the general range of observation-based SPI time series and simulations from the 5th phase of the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP5). In terms of magnitude, regional trends of SPI over the last decades remain mostly inconclusive in observation-based datasets and CMIP5 simulations, but Soil Moisture Anomalies (SMAs) in CMIP5 simulations hint at increased drought in a few regions (e.g., the Mediterranean, Central America/Mexico, the Amazon, North-East Brazil and South Africa). Also for the future, projections of changes in the magnitude of meteorological (SPI) and soil moisture (SMA) drought in CMIP5 display large spreads over all time frames, generally impeding trend detection. However, projections of changes in the frequencies of future drought events display more robust signal-to-noise ratios, with detectable trends towards more frequent drought before the end of the 21st century in the Mediterranean, South Africa and Central America/Mexico. Other present-day hot spots are projected to become less drought-prone, or display non-significant changes in drought occurrence. A separation of different sources of uncertainty in projections of meteorological and soil moisture drought reveals that for the near term, internal climate variability is the dominant source, while the formulation of Global Climate Models (GCMs) generally becomes the dominant source of spread by the end of the 21st century, especially for soil moisture drought. In comparison, the uncertainty from Green-House Gas (GHG) concentrations scenarios is negligible for most regions. These findings stand in contrast to respective analyses for a heat wave index, for which GHG concentrations scenarios constitute the main source of uncertainty. Our results highlight the inherent difficulty of drought quantification and the considerable likelihood range of drought projections, but also indicate regions where drought is consistently found to increase. In other regions, wide likelihood range should not be equated with low drought risk, since potential scenarios include large drought increases in key agricultural and ecosystem regions.