Greenhouse Gas Emissions Drive Global Dryland Expansion but Not Spatial Patterns of Change in Aridification

Shuyun Feng, Xihui Gu*, Sijia Luo, Ruihan Liu, Aminjon Gulakhmadov, Louise J. Slater, Jianfeng Li, Xiang Zhang, Dongdong Kong*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articlepeer-review

4 Citations (Scopus)


Drylands play an essential role in Earth’s environment and human systems. Although dryland expansion has been widely investigated in previous studies, there is a lack of quantitative evidence supporting human-induced changes in dryland extent. Here, using multiple observational datasets and model simulations from phase 6 of the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project, we employ both correlation-based and optimal fingerprinting approaches to conduct quantitative detection and attribution of dryland expansion. Our results show that spatial changes in atmospheric aridity (i.e., the aridity index defined by the ratio of precipitation to potential evapotranspiration) between the recent period 1990–2014 and the past period 1950–74 are unlikely to have been caused by greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. However, it is very likely (at least 95% confidence level) that dryland expansion at the global scale was driven principally by GHG emissions. Over the period 1950–2014, global drylands expanded by 3.67% according to observations, and the dryland expansion attributed to GHG emissions is estimated as ∼4.5%. Drylands are projected to continue expanding, and their populations to increase until global warming reaches ∼3.5°C above preindustrial temperature under the middle- and high-emission scenarios. If warming exceeds ∼3.5°C, a reduction in population density would drive a decrease in dryland population. Our results for the first time provide quantitative evidence for the dominant effects of GHG emissions on global dryland expansion, which is helpful for anthropogenic climate change adaptation in drylands.

Significance Statement:
In the past decades, global drylands have been reported to show changes in space and time, based on atmospheric aridity (i.e., aridity index defined by the ratio of precipitation to potential evapotranspiration). Using two detection and attribution methods, the spatial change patterns of atmospheric aridity between 1990–2014 and 1950–74 are unlikely to be driven by greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, whereas the temporal expansion of global drylands (i.e., 3.67% from 1950 to 2014) is principally attributed to GHG emissions (contribution: ∼122%). Quantitative evidence from the detection and attribution analysis supports the dominant role of greenhouse gas emissions in global dryland expansion, which will increase the population suffering from water shortages under future warming unless climate adaptation is adopted.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2901–2917
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of Climate
Issue number20
Early online date20 Sept 2022
Publication statusPublished - 15 Oct 2022

Scopus Subject Areas

  • Atmospheric Science

User-Defined Keywords

  • Climate change
  • Climate models
  • Climate records


Dive into the research topics of 'Greenhouse Gas Emissions Drive Global Dryland Expansion but Not Spatial Patterns of Change in Aridification'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this