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Climate Research

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Severe droughts were evaluated using a tree-ring network of 12 chronologies (1700−2005) from the Qilian Mountains on the northeastern Tibetan Plateau. A total of 98 drought years, including 78 moderate, 15 severe, and 5 extreme events, were identified for the past 306 yr. Following the starting year of a drought phase, drought commonly continued for 1 to 2 yr. The spatial patterns of moisture conditions in central and eastern China corresponding to 19 major drought years during the period 1700−2000 were grouped into 3 clusters, with one particular pattern showing droughts of nation-wide impact (i.e. 1721, 1928 and 1966). Drought events became more frequent during the 20th century. Moreover, the multi-year event during the late 1920s and early 1930s was the longest in the past 306 yr. As shown by the tree-ring data, this extreme drought event occurred first in the western Qilian Mountains, and then progressed gradually toward the central and eastern parts of the area, culminating in 1928. Comparison with historical documents demonstrates that the climatic information imbedded in the tree-ring network can provide quantitative measures of drought severity and fill the gaps where historical documents are lacking and/or incomplete.