Extreme large-scale droughts in North America, such as the 'Dust Bowl' of the 1930s, have been infrequent events within the documented history of the past few hundred years, yet this record may not be representative of long-term patterns of natural variation of drought intensity and frequency. In the Great Plains region of central North America, historical droughts have persisted longer than in any other part of the United States, but no detailed records of drought patterns in this region have hitherto been obtained that extend beyond the past 500 years. Here we present a reconstruction of drought intensity and frequency over the past 2,300 years in the Northern Great Plains, based on lake salinity fluctuations inferred from fossil diatom assemblages. This record, of sub-decadal resolution, suggests that extreme droughts of greater intensity than that of the 1930s were more frequent before AD 1200. This high frequency of extreme droughts persisted for centuries, and was most pronounced during AD 200-370, AD 700-850 and AD 1000- 1200. We suggest that before AD 1200, the atmospheric circulation anomalies that produce drought today were more frequent and persistent.
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