Present day greenhouse gases could cause more frequent and longer Dust Bowl heatwaves

Tim Cowan, Sabine Undorf, Gabi Hegerl, Luke J. Harrington, Friederike E. L. Otto

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

Substantial warming occurred across North America, Europe and the Arctic over the early twentieth century1, including an increase in global drought2, that was partially forced by rising greenhouse gases (GHGs)3. The period included the 1930s Dust Bowl drought4,5,6,7 across North America’s Great Plains that caused widespread crop failures4,8, large dust storms9 and considerable out-migration10. This coincided with the central United States experiencing its hottest summers of the twentieth century11,12 in 1934 and 1936, with over 40 heatwave days and maximum temperatures surpassing 44 °C at some locations13,14. Here we use a large-ensemble regional modelling framework to show that GHG increases caused slightly enhanced heatwave activity over the eastern United States during 1934 and 1936. Instead of asking how a present-day heatwave would behave in a world without climate warming, we ask how these 1930s heatwaves would behave with present-day GHGs. Heatwave activity in similarly rare events would be much larger under today’s atmospheric GHG forcing and the return period of a 1-in-100-year heatwave summer (as observed in 1936) would be reduced to about 1-in-40 years. A key driver of the increasing heatwave activity and intensity is reduced evaporative cooling and increased sensible heating during dry springs and summers.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)505-510
JournalNature Climate Change
Early online date18 May 2020
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2020


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