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New Study: ‘Climate change’ made California drought ‘less likely’ – Published in Journal of Climate

Journal of Climate 2015

How Has Human-induced Climate Change Affected California Drought Risk?

Linyin Cheng,1,2,* Martin Hoerling,3 Amir AghaKouchak,4 Ben Livneh,2 Xiao-Wei Quan,2 and Jon Eischeid2

1 University of Colorado, Boulder, CO 80305, USA.

2 Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, Boulder, CO 80305, USA.

3 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Earth System Research Laboratory/PSD, Boulder, CO 80305, USA.

4 University of California Irvine, Irvine, CA 92697, USA.


The current California drought has cast a heavy burden on statewide agriculture and water resources, further exacerbated by concurrent extreme high temperatures. Furthermore, industrial-era global radiative forcing brings into question the role of long-term climate change on CA drought.

How has human-induced climate change affected California drought risk? Here, observations and model experimentation are applied to characterize this drought employing metrics that synthesize drought duration, cumulative precipitation deficit, and soil moisture depletion. The model simulations show that increases in radiative forcing since the late 19th Century induces both increased annual precipitation and increased surface temperature over California, consistent with prior model studies and with observed long-term change. As a result, there is no material difference in the frequency of droughts defined using bivariate indicators of precipitation and near-surface (10-cm) soil moisture, because shallow soil moisture responds most sensitively to increased evaporation driven by warming, which compensates the increase in the precipitation. However, when using soil moisture within a deep root zone layer (1-m) as co-variate, droughts become less frequent because deep soil moisture responds most sensitively to increased precipitation. The results illustrate the different land surface responses to anthropogenic forcing that are relevant for near-surface moisture exchange and for root zone moisture availability. The latter is especially relevant for agricultural impacts as the deep layer dictates moisture availability for plants, trees, and many crops. The results thus indicate the net effect of climate change has made agricultural drought less likely, and that the current severe impacts of drought on California’s agriculture has not been substantially caused by long-term climate changes.

* Corresponding author. Address: 216 UCB, University of Colorado Boulder campus, Boulder, CO 80309. E-mail:
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