Sudden shifts from drought conditions to heavy floods are becoming more common in the U.S. as the climate changes, a study has found.
The findings were presented in a study published in Communications Earth & Environment. Researchers from the University of Texas, the Hong Kong Polytechnic University Research Institute for Land and Space, and Columbia University’s Department of Earth and Environmental Engineering, also found that so-called feedback loops—a process that can either increase or decrease the effects of greenhouse gases—are likely contributing.
“We are especially concerned with the sudden shift from drought to flood,” co-author Zong-Liang Yang, a professor at The University of Texas at Austin Jackson School of Geosciences, said in a statement on the findings. “Society usually has difficulty responding to one kind of natural disaster like drought, but now you suddenly have floods too. And this has been happening in many places.”
The findings were reached based on four decades of meteorological and hydrological data from hotspots around the world, including eastern North America, Europe, East Asia, Southeast Asia, southern Australia, southern Africa and southern South America, according to the statement.
Over time, from 1980 to 2020, researchers found that such whiplash trends in the weather increased approximately a quarter of a percent to 1% per year. These extreme shifts in weather patterns have manifested in parts of the U.S. recently, and in California in particular.
The state, which has been suffering from extreme drought conditions in recent years, was battered with record amounts of rainfall from December 2022 until early spring this year. The storms were so severe that catastrophic flooding was seen in many places.
While many thought that the increase in wet weather may help ease the drought, experts have warned that it will only be a short-term solution. As the drought in the western U.S. has stretched on for so long, it will still take years of above average rainfall for the region to fully recover.
Other factors as well as climate change may be contributing to these sudden weather changes, including the El Niño and La Niña climate patterns.
Feedback loops can also be to blame. Researchers found that during periods of heavy drought in humid areas, precipitation is pushed into the air, providing an additional moisture source, the study reported. This can then cause heavy rainfall.
Periods of drought in arid regions, can also see hot weather and low pressure colliding together, drawing moisture from other sources, such as the ocean.
“Climate change is fueling back-to-back droughts and floods which have caused widespread devastation, resulting in loss of life and damage to property, infrastructure, and the environment,” said co-author Shuo Wang, an associate professor at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University. “Our findings provide insights into the development of early warning systems for mitigating the impacts of rapid dry-wet transitions.”
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