Official newspaper of The University of Texas at Austin

The Daily Texan

Official newspaper of The University of Texas at Austin

The Daily Texan

Official newspaper of The University of Texas at Austin

The Daily Texan

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October 4, 2022

Researchers discover mechanisms underlying rapid changes from drought to floods

Emma Berke

A study published in July involving UT researchers found that rapid switches from droughts to floods are occurring more frequently worldwide. 

The researchers found that increased evaporation and precipitation fuel each other through interactions with the land and atmosphere, leading to a 0.24-1.03% increase in shifts from droughts to floods per year from 1980 to 2020. According to research co-author Shuo Wang, these shifts are visible on a global scale. 

“Rapid drought–flood transitions have been attracting widespread attention from the scientific community and media coverage internationally, such as California’s drought-to-deluge cycle, the most parched areas of Texas ravaged by flooding and the millennium drought-breaking rain in Australia,” Wang said in an email. 

Research co-author Zong-Liang Yang said the team used open-source data from 1980 to 2020 “to see if there are hot spots of rapid switches from droughts to floods, where they are and how intensive they are.” 

Wang, associate professor at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, said in an email that previous studies have focused on the detection of abrupt drought-to-flood events but that this was the first study to study the mechanism causing “weather whiplash” from the perspective of land−atmosphere feedback. 

“It is crucial to understand and determine possible mechanisms that trigger such compound extreme events in order to develop and improve early warning systems for mitigating the impacts of cascading hazards,” research co-author Yamin Qing said in an email.

As temperatures rise during periods of drought, the moisture content in the atmosphere also increases, according to Wang. Eventually, the amount of moisture in the air triggers rainfall, leading to potential flooding.  

According to Yang, a UT professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, droughts also induce stress on the power grid.

“Everyone turns on (the air conditioner), so the high demand for power is the biggest stress to the power transmission as well,” Yang said. 

According to Wang, climate change contributes to the increased occurrence of droughts and floods. 

“It is widely observed that the wild swings from severe droughts to deadly floods are also becoming more common with climate change in many parts of the world, which have caused substantial damage to the environment, ecosystems and society,” Wang said.

Yang said decreasing greenhouse gas emissions is crucial for slowing the impacts of climate change.

“(We must) remove the roots, which are responsible for global warming, (and) transition from fossil fuel to renewable energy,” Yang said.

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