Study: For parts of the world, perpetual drought is a possibility
Last year’s record-shattering drought may finally be over for Californians, but a new study suggests that in some parts of the world, drought could become the new normal.
The 19-person research team was led by Christopher Schwalm, a scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center in Falmouth, Mass., and received funding from the National Science Foundation and NASA.
According to Schwalm, the study uses satellites to estimate gross primary productivity, an indicator of "how much stuff plants synthesize."
This data was matched against the researchers’ projections, which had been extrapolated as far back as 1901 – well before satellites had been invented – to get a dataset spanning 110 years.
We may be headed for an era, he said, in which droughts are so frequent and severe that some areas are no longer fully able to recover.
"It’s kind of a down escalator," Schwalm said.
"(We) start with a healthy intact forest, and end up with somewhere completely different – a severely degraded system."
That’s serious, Schwalm said, because tropical rainforests – the "lungs of the Earth" – produce a disproportionate amount of the planet’s oxygen.
The model projections used in the study assume "business as usual" – that is, they predict a future with no new restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions.
Given the Trump administration’s intention to pull out of the Paris climate accords, that seems a likely scenario – though even in that case, Schwalm said his study suggests droughts will get worse over decades, not years.