Global characterization of hydrological and meteorological droughts under future climate change: The importance of time-scales, vegetation-CO2 feedbacks and changes to distribution functions

Vicente-Serrano S.M., Domínguez-Castro F., McVicar T., Tomas-Burguera M., Peña-Gallardo M., Noguera I., López-Moreno J.I., Peña D., El Kenawy A. (2019). Global characterization of hydrological and meteorological droughts under future climate change: The importance of time-scales, vegetation-CO2 feedbacks and changes to distribution functions. International Journal of Climatology doi:10.1002/joc.6350

There is a strong scientific debate on how drought will evolve under future climate change. Climate model outputs project an increase in drought frequency and severity by the end of the 21st century. However, there is a large uncertainty related to the extent of the global land area that will be impacted by enhanced climatological and hydrological droughts. Although climate metrics suggest a likely strong increase in future drought severity, hydrologic metrics do not show a similar signal. In the literature, numerous attempts have been made to explain these differences using several physical mechanisms. This study provides evidence that characterization of drought from different statistical perspectives can lead to unreliable detection of climatological/hydrological droughts in model projections and accordingly give a “false alarm” of the impacts of future climate change. In particular, this study analyses future projections based on different drought metrics and stresses that detecting trends in drought behavior in future projections must consider the extreme character of drought events by comparing the percentage change in drought magnitude relative to a reference climatological period and rely on the frequency of events in the tail of the distribution. In addition, the autoregressive character of drought indices makes necessary the use of the same temporal scale when comparing different drought metrics in order to maintain comparability. Taking into consideration all these factors, our study demonstrates that climatological and hydrological drought trends are likely to undergo similar temporal evolution during the 21st century, with almost 30% of the global land areas experiencing water deficit under future greenhouse gas emissions scenarios. As such, a proper characterization of drought using comparable metrics can introduce lower differences and more consistent outputs for future climatic and hydrologic droughts.

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