Climate variability and change in the drylands of Western North America

M. K. Hughes, H. F. Diaz

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

21 Scopus citations


We argue that it is important to expand the consideration of climate in the context of provision of ecosystem services in drylands. In addition to climate change, it is necessary to include climate variability on timescales relevant to human and ecological considerations, namely interannual to decadal and multidecadal. The period of global instrumental record (about a century and a half long at the very most) is neither an adequate nor an unbiased sample of the range and character of natural climate variability that might be expected with the climate system configured as it is now. We base this on evidence from W. N. America, where there has recently been a major multi-year drought, of a scale and intensity that has occurred several times in the last 2000 years, and on attempts to provide explanations of these phenomena based on physical climatology. Ensembles of runs of forced climate system models suggest the next 50 years will bring much more extensive and intense drought in the continental interior of North America. The trajectory followed by the supply of ecosystem services will be contingent not only on the genotypes available and the antecedent soil, economic and social conditions but also on climate variability and change. The critical features of climate on which patterns of plant growth and water supply depend may vary sharply during and between human generations, resulting in very different experiences and hence, expectations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)111-118
Number of pages8
JournalGlobal and Planetary Change
Issue number3-4
StatePublished - Dec 2008


  • Western North America
  • climate variability
  • drought
  • natural and anthropogenic climatic change
  • paleoclimatic reconstructions
  • semi-arid regions

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Oceanography


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