NASA study finds 1934 had worst drought of last thousand years

A new study using a reconstruction of North American drought history over the last 1,000 years found that the drought of 1934 was the driest and most widespread of the last millennium.

Using a tree-ring-based drought record from the years 1000 to 2005 and modern records, scientists from NASA and Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory found the 1934 drought was 30 percent more severe than the runner-up drought (in 1580) and extended across 71.6 percent of western North America. For comparison, the average extent of the 2012 drought was 59.7 percent.

“It was the worst by a large margin, falling pretty far outside the normal range of variability that we see in the record,” said climate scientist Ben Cook at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York. Cook is lead author of the study, which will publish in the Oct. 17 edition of Geophysical Research Letters.

Two sets of conditions led to the severity and extent of the 1934 drought. First, a high-pressure system in winter sat over the west coast of the United States and turned away wet weather – a pattern similar to that which occurred in the winter of 2013-14. Second, the spring of 1934 saw dust storms, caused by poor land management practices, suppress rainfall.

“In combination then, these two different phenomena managed to bring almost the entire nation into a drought at that time,” said co-author Richard Seager, professor at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University in New York. “The fact that it was the worst of the millennium was probably in part because of the human role.”

According to the recent Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, climate change is likely to make droughts in North America worse, and the southwest in particular is expected to become significantly drier as are summers in the central plains. Looking back one thousand years in time is one way to get a handle on the natural variability of droughts so that scientists can tease out anthropogenic effects – such as the dust storms of 1934.

“We want to understand droughts of the past to understand to what extent climate change might make it more or less likely that those events occur in the future,” Cook said.

The abnormal high-pressure system is one lesson from the past that informs scientists’ understanding of the current severe drought in California and the western United States.

“What you saw during this last winter and during 1934, because of this high pressure in the atmosphere, is that all the wintertime storms that would normally come into places like California instead got steered much, much farther north,” Cook said. “It’s these wintertime storms that provide most of the moisture in California. So without getting that rainfall it led to a pretty severe drought.”

This type of high-pressure system is part of normal variation in the atmosphere, and whether or not it will appear in a given year is difficult to predict in computer models of the climate. Models are more attuned to droughts caused by La Niña’s colder sea surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, which likely triggered the multi-year Dust Bowl drought throughout the 1930s. In a normal La Niña year, the Pacific Northwest receives more rain than usual and the southwestern states typically dry out.

But a comparison of weather data to models looking at La Niña effects showed that the rain-blocking high-pressure system in the winter of 1933-34 overrode the effects of La Niña for the western states. This dried out areas from northern California to the Rockies that otherwise might have been wetter.

As winter ended, the high-pressure system shifted eastward, interfering with spring and summer rains that typically fall on the central plains. The dry conditions were exacerbated and spread even farther east by dust storms.

“We found that a lot of the drying that occurred in the spring time occurred downwind from where the dust storms originated,” Cook said, “suggesting that it’s actually the dust in the atmosphere that’s driving at least some of the drying in the spring and really allowing this drought event to spread upwards into the central plains.”

Dust clouds reflect sunlight and block solar energy from reaching the surface. That prevents evaporation that would otherwise help form rain clouds, meaning that the presence of the dust clouds themselves leads to less rain, Cook said.

“Previous work and this work offers some evidence that you need this dust feedback to explain the real anomalous nature of the Dust Bowl drought in 1934,” Cook said.

Dust storms like the ones in the 1930s aren’t a problem in North America today. The agricultural practices that gave rise to the Dust Bowl were replaced by those that minimize erosion. Still, agricultural producers need to pay attention to the changing climate and adapt accordingly, not forgetting the lessons of the past, said Seager. “The risk of severe mid-continental droughts is expected to go up over time, not down,” he said.

Sea-level spikes, volcanic risk, volcanos cause drought

Unforeseen, short-term increases in sea level caused by strong winds, pressure changes and fluctuating ocean currents can cause more damage to beaches on the East Coast over the course of a year than a powerful hurricane making landfall, according to a new study. The new research suggests that these sea-level anomalies could be more of a threat to coastal homes and businesses than previously thought, and could become higher and more frequent as a result of climate change, according to a new study accepted for publication in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.

From this week’s Eos: Assessing Volcanic Risk in Saudi Arabia: An Integrated Approach


The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has numerous large volcanic fields, known locally as “harrats.” The largest of these, Harrat Rahat, produced a basaltic fissure eruption in 1256 A.D. with lava flows traveling within 20 kilometers of the city Al-Madinah, which has a current population of 1.5 million plus an additional 3 million pilgrims annually. With more than 950 visible vents and periodic seismic swarms, an understanding of the risk of future eruptions in this volcanic field is vital. The Volcanic Risk in Saudi Arabia (VORISA) project was developed as a multidisciplinary international research collaboration that integrates geological, geophysical, hazard, and risk studies in this important area.

From AGU’s journals: Large volcanic eruptions cause drought in eastern China


In most cases, the annual East Asian Monsoon brings heavy rains and widespread flooding to southeast China and drought conditions to the northeast. At various points throughout history, however, large volcanic eruptions have upset the regular behavior of the monsoon.

Sulfate aerosols injected high into the atmosphere by powerful eruptions can lower the land-sea temperature contrast that powers the monsoon circulation. How this altered aerosol forcing affects precipitation is not entirely clear, however, as climate models do not always agree with observations of the nature and scale of the effect.

Using two independent records of historical volcanic activity along with two different measures of rainfall, including one 3,000-year long record derived from local flood and drought observations, Zhuo et al. analyzes how large volcanic eruptions changed the conditions on the ground for the period 1368 to 1911. Understanding the effect of sulfate aerosols on monsoon behavior is particularly important now, as researchers explore aerosol seeding as a means of climate engineering.

The authors find that large Northern Hemispheric volcanic eruptions cause strong droughts in much of eastern China. The drought begins in the north in the second or third summer following an eruption and slowly moves southward over the next 2 to 3 years. They find that the severity of the drought scales with the amount of aerosol injected into the atmosphere, and that it takes 4 to 5 years for precipitation to recover. The drying pattern agrees with observations from three large modern eruptions.

China’s northeast is the country’s major grain-producing region. The results suggest that any geoengineering schemes meant to mimic the effect of a large volcanic eruption could potentially trigger devastating consequences for China’s food supply.

The Atlantic Ocean dances with the sun and volcanoes

Imagine a ballroom in which two dancers apparently keep in time to their own individual rhythm. The two partners suddenly find themselves moving to the same rhythm and, after a closer look, it is clear to see which one is leading.

It was an image like this that researchers at Aarhus University were able to see when they compared studies of solar energy release and volcanic activity during the last 450 years, with reconstructions of ocean temperature fluctuations during the same period.

The results actually showed that during the last approximately 250 years – since the period known as the Little Ice Age – a clear correlation can be seen where the external forces, i.e. the Sun’s energy cycle and the impact of volcanic eruptions, are accompanied by a corresponding temperature fluctuation with a time lag of about five years.

In the previous two centuries, i.e. during the Little Ice Age, the link was not as strong, and the temperature of the Atlantic Ocean appears to have followed its own rhythm to a greater extent.

The results were recently published in the scientific journal Nature Communications.

In addition to filling in yet another piece of the puzzle associated with understanding the complex interaction of the natural forces that control the climate, the Danish researchers paved the way for linking the two competing interpretations of the origin of the oscillation phenomenon.

Temperature fluctuations discovered around the turn of the millennium

The climate is defined on the basis of data including mean temperature values recorded over a period of thirty years. Northern Europe thus has a warm and humid climate compared with other regions on the same latitudes. This is due to the North Atlantic Drift (often referred to as the Gulf Stream), an ocean current that transports relatively warm water from the south-west part of the North Atlantic to the sea off the coast of Northern Europe.

Around the turn of the millennium, however, climate researchers became aware that the average temperature of the Atlantic Ocean was not entirely stable, but actually fluctuated at the same rate throughout the North Atlantic. This phenomenon is called the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO), which consists of relatively warm periods lasting thirty to forty years being replaced by cool periods of the same duration.

The researchers were able to read small systematic variations in the water temperature in the North Atlantic in measurements taken by ships during the last 140 years.

Although the temperature fluctuations are small – less than 1°C – there is a general consensus among climate researchers that the AMO phenomenon has had a major impact on the climate in the area around the North Atlantic for thousands of years, but until now there has been doubt about what could cause this slow rhythm in the temperature of the Atlantic Ocean. One model explains the phenomenon as internal variability in the ocean circulation – somewhat like a bathtub sloshing water around in its own rhythm. Another model explains the AMO as being driven by fluctuations in the amount of solar energy received by the Earth, and as being affected by small changes in the energy radiated by the Sun itself and the after-effects of volcanic eruptions. Both these factors are also known as ‘external forces’ that have an impact on the Earth’s radiation balance.

However, there has been considerable scepticism towards the idea that a phenomenon such as an AMO could be driven by external forces at all – a scepticism that the Aarhus researchers now demonstrate as unfounded.

“Our new investigations clearly show that, since the Little Ice Age, there has been a correlation between the known external forces and the temperature fluctuations in the ocean that help control our climate. At the same time, however, the results also show that this can’t be the only driving force behind the AMO, and the explanation must therefore be found in a complex interaction between a number of mechanisms. It should also be pointed out that these fluctuations occur on the basis of evenly increasing ocean temperatures during the last approximately fifty years – an increase connected with global warming,” says Associate Professor Mads Faurschou Knudsen, Department of Geoscience, Aarhus University, who is the main author of the article.

Convincing data from the Earth’s own archives

Researchers have attempted to make computer simulations of the phenomenon ever since the discovery of the AMO, partly to enable a better understanding of the underlying mechanism. However, it is difficult for the computer models to reproduce the actual AMO signal that can be read in the temperature data from the last 140 years.

Associate Professor Knudsen and his colleagues instead combined all available data from the Earth’s own archives, i.e. previous studies of items such as radioactive isotopes and volcanic ash in ice cores. This provides information about solar energy release and volcanic activity during the last 450 years, and the researchers compared the data with reconstructions of the AMO’s temperature rhythm during the same period.

“We’ve only got direct measurements of the Atlantic Ocean temperature for the last 140 years, where it was measured by ships. But how do you measure the water temperature further back in time? Studies of growth rings in trees from the entire North Atlantic region come into the picture here, where ‘good’ and ‘bad’ growth conditions are calibrated to the actual measurements, and the growth rings from trees along the coasts further back in time can therefore act as reserve thermometers,” explains Associate Professor Knudsen.

The results provide a new and very important perspective on the AMO phenomenon because they are based on data and not computer models, which are inherently incomplete. The problem is that the models do not completely describe all the physical correlations and feedbacks in the system, partly because these are not fully understood. And when the models are thus unable to reproduce the actual AMO signal, it is hard to know whether they have captured the essence of the AMO phenomenon.

Impact of the sun and volcanoes

An attempt to simply explain how external forces such as the Sun and volcanoes can control the climate could sound like this: a stronger Sun heats up the ocean, while the ash from volcanic eruptions shields the Sun and cools down the ocean. However, it is hardly as simple as that.

“Fluctuations in ocean temperature have a time lag of about five years in relation to the peaks we can read in the external forces. However, the direct effect of major volcanic eruptions is clearly seen as early as the same year in the mean global atmospheric temperature, i.e. a much shorter delay. The effect we studied is more complex, and it takes time for this effect to spread to the ocean currents,” explains Associate Professor Knudsen.

“An interesting new theory among solar researchers and meteorologists is that the Sun can control climate variations via the very large variations in UV radiation, which are partly seen in connection with changes in sunspot activity during the Sun’s eleven-year cycle. UV radiation heats the stratosphere in particular via increased production of ozone, which can have an impact on wind systems and thereby indirectly on the global ocean currents as well,” says Associate Professor Knudsen. However, he emphasises that researchers have not yet completely understood how a development in the stratosphere can affect the ocean currents on Earth.

Towards a better understanding of the climate

“In our previous study of the climate in the North Atlantic region during the last 8,000 years, we were able to show that the temperature of the Atlantic Ocean was presumably not controlled by the Sun’s activity. Here the temperature fluctuated in its own rhythm for long intervals, with warm and cold periods lasting 25 years. The prevailing pattern was that this climate fluctuation in the ocean was approximately 30󈞔% faster than the fluctuation we’d previously observed in solar activity, which lasted about ninety years. What we can now see is that the Atlantic Ocean would like to – or possibly even prefer to – dance alone. However, under certain circumstances, the external forces interrupt the ocean’s own rhythm and take over the lead, which has been the case during the last 250 years,” says Associate Professor Bo Holm Jacobsen, Department of Geoscience, Aarhus University, who is the co-author of the article.

“It’ll be interesting to see how long the Atlantic Ocean allows itself to be led in this dance. The scientific challenge partly lies in understanding the overall conditions under which the AMO phenomenon is sensitive to fluctuations in solar activity and volcanic eruptions,” he continues.

“During the last century, the AMO has had a strong bearing on significant weather phenomena such as hurricane frequency and droughts – with considerable economic and human consequences. A better understanding of this phenomenon is therefore an important step for efforts to deal with and mitigate the impact of climate variations,” Associate Professor Knudsen concludes.

Climate and drought lessons from ancient Egypt

Ancient pollen and charcoal preserved in deeply buried sediments in Egypt’s Nile Delta document the region’s ancient droughts and fires, including a huge drought 4,200 years ago associated with the demise of Egypt’s Old Kingdom, the era known as the pyramid-building time.

“Humans have a long history of having to deal with climate change,” said Christopher Bernhardt, a researcher with the U.S. Geological Survey. “Along with other research, this study geologically reveals that the evolution of societies is sometimes tied to climate variability at all scales – whether decadal or millennial.”

Bernhardt conducted this research as part of his Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania, along with Benjamin Horton, an associate professor in Penn’s Department of Earth and Environmental Science. Jean-Daniel Stanley at the Smithsonian Institution also participated in the study, published in July’s edition of Geology.

“Even the mighty builders of the ancient pyramids more than 4,000 years ago fell victim when they were unable to respond to a changing climate,” said USGS Director Marcia McNutt. “This study illustrates that water availability was the climate-change Achilles Heel then for Egypt, as it may well be now, for a planet topping seven billion thirsty people.”

The researchers used pollen and charcoal preserved in a Nile Delta sediment core dating from 7,000 years ago to the present to help resolve the physical mechanisms underlying critical events in ancient Egyptian history.

They wanted to see if changes in pollen assemblages would reflect ancient Egyptian and Middle East droughts recorded in archaeological and historical records. The researchers also examined the presence and amount of charcoal because fire frequency often increases during times of drought, and fires are recorded as charcoal in the geological record. The scientists suspected that the proportion of wetland pollen would decline during times of drought and the amount of charcoal would increase.

And their suspicions were right.

Large decreases in the proportion of wetland pollen and increases in microscopic charcoal occurred in the core during four different times between 3,000 and 6,000 years ago. One of those events was the abrupt and global mega-drought of around 4,200 years ago, a drought that had serious societal repercussions, including famines, and which probably played a role in the end of Egypt’s Old Kingdom and affected other Mediterranean cultures as well.

“Our pollen record appears very sensitive to the decrease in precipitation that occurred in the mega-drought of 4,200 years ago,” Bernhardt said. “The vegetation response lasted much longer compared with other geologic proxy records of this drought, possibly indicating a sustained effect on delta and Nile basin vegetation.”

Similarly, pollen and charcoal evidence recorded two other large droughts: one that occurred some 5,000 to 5,500 years ago and another that occurred around 3,000 years ago.

These events are also recorded in human history – the first one started some 5,000 years ago when the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt occurred and the Uruk Kingdom in modern Iraq collapsed. The second event, some 3,000 years ago, took place in the eastern Mediterranean and is associated with the fall of the Ugarit Kingdom and famines in the Babylonian and Syrian Kingdoms.

“The study geologically demonstrates that when deciphering past climates, pollen and other micro-organisms, such as charcoal, can augment or verify written or archaeological records – or they can serve as the record itself if other information doesn’t exist or is not continuous,” said Horton.