Complex interactions in the climate system can give rise to strong positive feedback mechanisms that may lead to sudden climatic changes. The prolonged Sahel drought and the Dust Bowl are examples of 20th century abrupt climatic changes that had serious effects on ecosystems and societies. Here we analyze global historical rainfall observations to detect regions that have undergone large, sudden decreases in rainfall. Our results show that in the 20th century about 30 regions in the world have experienced such changes. These events are statistically significant at the 99% level, are persistent for at least ten years, and most have magnitudes of change that are 10% lower than the climatological normal (1901–2000 rainfall average). This analysis illustrates the extent and magnitude of abrupt climate changes across the globe during the 20th century and may be used for studying the dynamics of and the mechanisms behind these abrupt changes.