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Climate scientists find link between sea surface temperatures and droughts

Even if a region isn't getting drier overall, researchers say, prolonged droughts can still have a significant impact.

By
Brooks Hays
The eastern Mediterranean continues to suffer the worst drought in 900 years. Photo by NASA/Goddard Scientific Visualization Studio
The eastern Mediterranean continues to suffer the worst drought in 900 years. Photo by NASA/Goddard Scientific Visualization Studio

July 19 (UPI) -- New research suggests larger and more persistent fluctuations in sea surface temperatures are linked with extreme weather patterns on land, encouraging prolonged droughts.

When temperatures fluctuate wildly in the ocean, scientists found, so too do temperatures on land.

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When climate scientists analyzed sea surface temperatures recorded between 1957 and 2002 in the North Pacific and North Atlantic oceans, they found more dramatic fluctuations and prolonged extremes. Further analysis revealed a link between sea surface temperature patterns and persistent droughts in North America and the Mediterranean.

Even if a region isn't getting drier overall, researchers say, prolonged droughts can still have a significant impact.

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"For instance, a long heatwave can have greater impacts on human mortality than the sum of individual hot days, and multi-year droughts can have greater agricultural economic impacts than the sum of individual dry years," Tim Lenton, a professor at the University of Exeter, said in a news release.

NASA has described an ongoing drought in the eastern Mediterranean as the region's "worst drought of the past nine centuries."

Until a barrage of rainstorms pummeled the California coast over the last two years and repaid the region's water debt, California suffered one of its worst droughts in history.

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The Pacific Ocean continues to experience a variety of sea surface temperature anomalies.

Researchers shared their latest analysis of sea surface temperatures and drought patterns in the journal Scientific Reports.

It's possible extreme sea surface temperature variability will have varied effects, as recent research suggests the southern half of California can expect more precipitation as a result of warmer ocean waters in the Pacific.

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