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Abrupt Climate Change: Inevitable Surprises
Bowl or the severe 1950s southwest drought have occurred an average of once or twice per century over the last 2,000 years. Furthermore, decadal “megadroughts” have also occurred often, but at less frequent intervals. The last of these occurred in the sixteenth century, spanned much of northern Mexico to Canada, and lasted over 20 years in some regions (Woodhouse and Overpeck, 1998; Stahle et al., 2000). An earlier event in the thirteenth century also persisted for decades in some locations and involved the long-term drying of lakes in the Sierra Nevada of California (Stine, 1994) and the activation of desert dunes in parts of the High Plains (Muhs and Holliday, 1995, 2001). There is evidence of even longer droughts further back than the last millennium (Stine, 1994; Laird et al., 1996; Fritz et al., 2000), including an unprecedented multidecadal drought that has been implicated in the collapse of the Classic Mayan civilization (Hodell et al., 1995, 2001), several droughts that led to the remobilization of eolian landforms on the High Plains (Forman et al., 2001), and linkage between droughts in tropical and temperate zones (Lamb et al., 1995). An important conclusion from paleodrought research is that drought regimes can shift rapidly and without warning. A prominent example is the shift, at about 1200 BP, from a regime characterized by frequent long droughts on the High Plains to the current regime of less-frequent and shorter droughts (Laird et al., 1996; Woodhouse and Overpeck, 1998).
Despite growing knowledge of the paleodrought record, causal mechanisms of changes are poorly understood (Woodhouse and Overpeck, 1998). Persistent oceanic temperature anomalies, perhaps related to ENSO or the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) as described below, have been proposed as one potential forcing mechanism (Forman et al., 1995; Black et al., 1999; Cole and Cook, 1998; Cole et al., submitted), but cause and effect have yet to be proved in the case of any decadal or longer paleodrought in North America. There is also good evidence of late Holocene multidecadal droughts outside North America (e.g., Stine, 1994; Verschuren et al., 2000; Nicholson, 2001); their causes are equally enigmatic. Thus, although we know that droughts unprecedented in the last 150 years have occurred in the last 2,000 years and so could occur in the future, we do not have the scientific understanding to predict them or recognize their onset.
Just as the twentieth century instrumental record is too short to understand the full range of drought, it is too short to understand how the fre-