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2000-2021 Was The Driest Since The Year 800 In The Southwest

6 Mar 2022, 3:00 am

[A visibly low water level is present in this aerial view of Enterprise Bridge in Butte County. Photo taken 28 October, 2021. Andrew Innerarity/California Department of Water Resources.]

[Written by NOAA CPO]  Since the year 2000, southwestern North America (SWNA) has been unusually dry due to low precipitation totals and heat – most recently embodied by the exceptional drought in 2021. From 2000 to 2021, mean water-year (October–September) precipitation was 8.3% below the 1950–1999 average and the temperature was 0.91 °C above average. No other 22-yr period since at least 1901 was as dry or as hot. How does this exceptionally dry period compare to historical droughts?

In a new Nature Climate Change article, authors A. Park Williams, Benjamin I. Cook, and Jason E. Smerdon extended the SWNA summer soil moisture record back to 800 CE using a tree-ring reconstruction and compared the observed drought of 2000–2018 to the infamous megadroughts that occurred repeatedly from 800–1600.

[This aerial view of Lake Mead shows declining water levels. Credit: NOAA Drought Task Force]

The study reveals that 2000–2021 was the driest 22-yr period since at least 800. It is noted that the 19-yr low soil moisture anomaly from 2000 to 2018 was probably the second driest in at least 1,200 years. Exceeded only by a 19-yr interval during the late-1500s megadrought. In addition, researchers explain that the exceptional drought severity in 2021, ~19% of which is attributable to anthropogenic climate trends, will very likely persist through 2022, matching the duration of the late-1500s megadrought. It’s noted in previous work that continued anthropogenic climate change will increasingly enhance the odds of long, widespread and severe megadroughts returning to SWNA after a hiatus of >400 yr.

You can read more on the comparison of the historic drought at this link.