How will climate change affect the planet? A new study by the National Center for Atmospheric Research warns that based on current projections of global-warming pollution, vast swaths of the world’s most populated areas could begin suffering from extreme drought within decades. The increasingly dry soil would threaten water and food for hundreds of millions.
Although periodic dry spells have always been normal, the new study suggests that global warming is already causing more serious droughts, which have more than doubled since the 1970s. (Drier areas are indicated in red, wetter areas in blue.) The extra heat in the atmosphere evaporates more water and dries out the land, which in turn fuels devastating fires. Extreme droughts in China and France are currently drying up reservoirs and killing crops, while the fire season in the American West has increased by 78 days over the past 30 years.
Using 22 computer models of the climate, the study indicates that the extent and severity of droughts could soon be unprecedented. While some areas of the northern latitudes may grow wetter, much of the U.S. and Latin America – along with central China and most of Europe, Africa and Australia – could be hit by extreme and prolonged drought. “If the projections come even close to being realized,” says climate scientist Aiguo Dai, who conducted the study, “the consequences for society worldwide will be enormous.”