Predicting Drought in the American West Just Got Much More Difficult


A new, USC-led study of more than 1,000 years of North American droughts and global conditions found that forecasting a lack of precipitation is rarely straightforward.

People hoping to get a handle on future droughts in the American West are in for a disappointment, as new USC-led research spanning centuries shows El Niño cycles are an unreliable predictor.

Instead, they found that Earth’s dynamic atmosphere is a wild card that plays a much bigger role than sea surface temperatures, yet defies predictability, in the wet and dry cycles that whipsaw the western states. The study, published today in Science Advances, is a detailed assessment of long-term drought variability.

The findings are significant for water management, agriculture, urban planning and natural resources protection. Recent droughts have claimed many lives and caused damaging crop losses, making drought forecasting a high priority. Meanwhile, the West faces rapid population growth at the same time that forecasts show dry times ahead due to global climate change.

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