Research | Drought

Student rappelling down cliff faceProlonged droughts exact tremendous financial, human, and ecological costs. Even over the past century, the mechanisms that lead to drought persistence and severity are only beginning to be understood. Drought is a significant climate change concern in much of the world, as the limitations of available water resources run up against growing demand and changing climate patterns.

According to the latest climate projections, shifts in atmospheric circulation associated with global warming will tend to exacerbate dry conditions where water is already limiting. This trend places the Southwestern US at increased risk of water shortage, and it dramatically increases vulnerability of poorer semiarid regions, including much of Africa and parts of Asia. Natural variability will continue to play a critical role in extreme drought: paleoclimate records reveal clear evidence of naturally occurring multidecadal “megadroughts” in many parts of the world that are unprecedented in the instrumental record and poorly understood from the perspective of physical mechanisms. Such droughts often initiate abruptly, making anticipation and planning difficult.

Research in UA Geosciences targets several aspects of drought. We are developing paleoclimatic records of past drought in many parts of the world, from our backyard in the desert Southwest to Africa, Asia, and South America. Paleoclimatologists and climate modelers are working together to diagnose the ability of models to simulate prolonged drought and test hypotheses regarding the mechanisms of drought persistence and severity. We are exploring relationships among drought patterns worldwide and between drought and large-scale ocean climate systems. We are assessing the potential future of drought and its implications for human and ecological systems. Finally, we work to link our climate research directly with societal needs, including development of drought policies and outreach efforts. Much of this work is done through interdisciplinary collaborations with others on the UA campus and beyond. We have strong interactions with organizations and individuals outside the university for whom drought is a pressing concern, including water managers, agricultural specialists, and environmental policy-makers.

Drought research spans many departments and programs at the University of Arizona, including both social and natural sciences. The Institute of the Environment web page is a good place to start to explore these connections.


Faculty and Researchers

Julio Betancourt – Paleoclimatology and paleoecology
Andy Cohen - Paleolimnology, paleoecology, limnogeology.
Julia Cole – Paleoclimate reconstruction and modeling; coral reefs; drought
Owen Davis - Quaternary paleoecology and palynology
Karl Flessa – Marine paleoecology; Gulf of California; Colorado River Delta
Steve Jackson
Vance Holliday – Drought in Quaternary stratigraphic and archaeological records
Jonathan Overpeck – Paleoclimate dynamics; global change impacts
Joellen Russell - Biogeochemistry, oceanography, climate dynamics and modeling
Jessica Tierney - Geochemistry, biogeochemistry, drought, reconstruction & modeling
Jianjun Yin - Climate Dynamics and Modeling Ocean Circulation and Sea Level Change


Facilities, Equipment, and Resources

Lab facilities include an image analysis and modeling computer lab, plus a laboratory for the paleoenvironmental analysis of lake and marine sediments. Other labs include:

Biogeochemical Dynamics Laboratory
Institute for the Study of Planet Earth