Multifaceted characteristics of dryland aridity changes in a warming world

Xu Lian, Shilong Piao*, Anping Chen, Chris Huntingford, Bojie Fu, Laurent Z.X. Li, Jianping Huang, Justin Sheffield, Alexis M. Berg, Trevor F. Keenan, Tim R. McVicar, Yoshihide Wada, Xuhui Wang, Tao Wang, Yuting Yang, Michael L. Roderick

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

    314 Citations (Scopus)


    Drylands are an essential component of the Earth System and are among the most vulnerable to climate change. In this Review, we synthesize observational and modelling evidence to demonstrate emerging differences in dryland aridity dependent on the specific metric considered. Although warming heightens vapour pressure deficit and, thus, atmospheric demand for water in both the observations and the projections, these changes do not wholly propagate to exacerbate soil moisture and runoff deficits. Moreover, counter-intuitively, many arid ecosystems have exhibited significant greening and enhanced vegetation productivity since the 1980s. Such divergence between atmospheric and ecohydrological aridity changes can primarily be related to moisture limitations by dry soils and plant physiological regulations of evapotranspiration under elevated CO2. The latter process ameliorates water stress on plant growth and decelerates warming-enhanced water losses from soils, while simultaneously warming and drying the near-surface air. We place these climate-induced aridity changes in the context of exacerbated water scarcity driven by rapidly increasing anthropogenic needs for freshwater to support population growth and economic development. Under future warming, dryland ecosystems might respond non-linearly, caused by, for example, complex ecosystem–hydrology–human interactions and increased mortality risks from drought and heat stress, which is a foremost priority for future research.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)232-250
    Number of pages19
    JournalNature Reviews Earth and Environment
    Issue number4
    Publication statusPublished - Apr 2021


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