Worst Drought Since The Middle Ages May Be The New Norm

By Amir Khan on July 30, 2012 12:28 PM EDT

The widespread drought that decimated much of western North America from 2000 to 2004 may be the new norm, according to a new study, published in the journal Nature Geoscience. The drought was the worst seen since the Middle Ages, but over the next century, such extreme conditions could be normal.

The drought withered forests, destroyed crops and emptied river basins. In addition, carbon sequestration, which is when trees trap carbon from entering the atmosphere, was cut in half.

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"That's a huge drop," Beverly Law, study author and researcher with Oregon State University, said, according to LiveScience. "And if global carbon emissions don't come down, the future will be even worse."

The drought was the worst since the Middle Ages, between the years 977 and 981 and again between 1146 and 1151. However, if conditions continue to worsen, 2000-2004 could be considered a wet season, researchers said.

Researchers said a "megadrought" could be in the cards as precipitation continues to decrease. If that occurs, it could have serious consequences as carbon sequestration decreases, which would hasten global warming. In addition, fires could become widespread.

"Areas that are already dry in the West are expected to get drier," Law said, according to LiveScience. "We expect more extremes. And it's these extreme periods that can really cause ecosystem damage, lead to climate-induced mortality of forests, and may cause some areas to convert from forest into shrublands or grassland."

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