04 Jul 2023
 | 04 Jul 2023

Emerging anthropogenic influence on Australian multi-year droughts with potential for historically unprecedented megadroughts

Georgina M. Falster, Nicky M. Wright, Nerilie J. Abram, Anna M. Ukkola, and Benjamin J. Henley

Abstract. In drought-prone Australia, multi-year droughts have detrimental impacts on both the natural environment and human societies. For responsible water management, we need a thorough understanding of the full range of variability in multi-year droughts and how this might change in a warming world. But research into the long-term frequency, persistence, and severity of Australian droughts is limited. This is partly due to the length of the observational record, which is short relative to the time scales of hydroclimatic variability, and hence may not capture the range of possible variability. Using simulations of Australian precipitation over the last millennium (850–2000 CE), we characterise the nature of multi-year meteorological droughts across Australia, and including a particular focus on the Murray-Darling Basin (MDB); the largest agricultural region in Australia. We find that simulated Australian droughts in the twentieth century (1900–2000) are within the bounds of pre-industrial natural variability in terms of drought intensity, severity, and frequency. A tendency to longer droughts in southwestern and eastern Australia (including the MDB) in the 20th century compared with the pre-industrial period suggests an emerging anthropogenic influence, consistent with projected rainfall changes in these regions. Large volcanic eruptions tend to promote drought-free intervals in the MDB. Model simulations suggest future droughts across Australia could be much longer than what has been experienced in the twentieth century, even without any human influence. With the addition of anthropogenic climate change—which favours drought conditions across much of southern Australia, due to reduced cool season rainfall—it is likely that future droughts in Australia will exceed historical experience.

Georgina M. Falster et al.

Status: final response (author comments only)

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Georgina M. Falster et al.

Georgina M. Falster et al.


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Short summary
Multi-year droughts have severe environmental and economic impacts, but the instrumental record is too short to characterise multi-year drought variability. We assessed the nature of Australian multi-year droughts, using simulations of the past millennium from 11 climate models. We show that multi-decadal 'megadroughts’ are a natural feature of Australian hydroclimate. Human-caused climate change is also driving a tendency toward longer droughts in eastern and southwestern Australia.