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Predicting the Asian monsoon

Members of the Lamont Doherty Tree Ring Laboratory and their local collaborators sampled trees in more than 25 countries, including collecting spruce in the snow in Japan, shown here.
[photo credit: Brendan Buckley]

The weather system known as the Asian monsoon affects more than half of the people on Earth, making it perhaps the most important seasonal weather system in the entire world. But, without long-term climate data, researchers don't know much about the monsoon's true nature.

Now, researchers have put together a 700-year-long record of the Asian monsoon throughout Asia, documenting how it has changed in the past. Edward Cook and his team of researchers accomplished this by measuring tree ring data from the center of tree trunks in 300 different locations across the Asian continent. They call their detailed study of the Asian monsoon the Monsoon Asia Drought Atlas, or the MADA. In the future, these researchers hope their data is compared with other climate records of the past to better understand how the Asian monsoon changed—and how it will continue to change in the future.

Cloud forests in the mountains of Vietnam's Bidoup Nui Ba National Park contain conifer species, including Po Mu (Fokiena hodginsii), that can live for a thousand years or more.
[photo credit: Kevin Anchukaitis]

The MADA covers some very important climatic events of the last 1,000 years, including the Little Ice Age and the more recent period of human-based climate change. MADA also documents many years in which the Asian monsoon failed to provide the usual amount of water to certain regions of Asia—and these periods reflect severe droughts that plagued human populations at the time.

In a way, this new study provides the "fingerprints" that the Asian monsoon has left on the Earth since the year 1300. In the future, it might be compared with patterns of sea surface temperatures and measurements of rainfall to improve climate modeling and prediction for the whole world.