Competing Influences of Anthropogenic Warming, ENSO, and Plant Physiology on Future Terrestrial Aridity
The 2011-2016 Californian drought illustrates that drought-prone areas do not always experience relief once a favorable phase of El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) returns. In the 21st century, such an expectation is unrealistic in regions where global warming induces an increase in terrestrial aridity larger than the aridity changes driven by ENSO variability. This premise is also flawed in areas where precipitation supply cannot offset the global warming-induced increased evaporative demand. Here, atmosphere-only experiments are analyzed to identify land regions in which aridity is currently sensitive to ENSO, and where projected future changes in mean aridity exceed the range caused by ENSO variability. Insights into the drivers of these aridity changes are obtained in simulations with incremental addition of three different factors to current climate: ocean warming, vegetation response to elevated CO2 levels, and intensified CO2 radiative forcing. The effect of ocean warming overwhelms the range of ENSO-driven temperature variability worldwide, increasing potential evapotranspiration (PET) in most ENSO-sensitive regions. Additionally, ∼39% of the regions currently sensitive to ENSO receive less precipitation in the future, independent of the ENSO phase. Aridity increases consequently in 67-72% of the ENSO-sensitive area. When both radiative and physiological effects are considered, the area affected by aridity rises to 75-79% when using PET-derived measures of aridity, but declines to 41% when total soil moisture aridity indicator is employed. This reduction mainly occurs because plant stomatal resistance increases under enhanced CO2 concentrations, which results in improved plant water use efficiency, and hence reduced evapotranspiration and soil desiccation. Imposing CO2-invariant stomatal resistance may overestimate future drying in PET-derived indices.