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M. Hoerling, J. Eischeid, A. Kumar, R. Leung, A. Mariotti, K. Mo, S. Schubert, and R. Seager

Central Great Plains precipitation deficits during May–August 2012 were the most severe since at least 1895, eclipsing the Dust Bowl summers of 1934 and 1936. Drought developed suddenly in May, following near-normal precipitation during winter and early spring. Its proximate causes were a reduction in atmospheric moisture transport into the Great Plains from the Gulf of Mexico. Processes that generally provide air mass lift and condensation were mostly absent, including a lack of frontal cyclones in late spring followed by suppressed deep convection in the summer owing to large-scale subsidence and atmospheric stabilization.

Seasonal forecasts did not predict the summer 2012 central Great Plains drought development, which therefore arrived without early warning. Climate simulations and empirical analysis suggest that ocean surface temperatures together with changes in greenhouse gases did not induce a substantial reduction in sum mertime precipitation over the central Great Plains during 2012. Yet, diagnosis of the retrospective climate simulations also reveals a regime shift toward warmer and drier summertime Great Plains conditions during the recent decade, most probably due to natural decadal variability. As a consequence, the probability of the severe summer Great Plains drought occurring may have increased in the last decade compared to the 1980s and 1990s, and the so-called tail risk for severe drought may have been heightened in summer 2012. Such an extreme drought event was nonetheless still found to be a rare occurrence within the spread of 2012 climate model simulations. The implications of this study's findings for U.S. seasonal drought forecasting are discussed.

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Paul A. Dirmeyer, Jiangfeng Wei, Michael G. Bosilovich, and David M. Mocko

Abstract

A quasi-isentropic, back-trajectory scheme is applied to output from the Modern-Era Retrospective Analysis for Research and Applications (MERRA) and a land-only replay with corrected precipitation to estimate surface evaporative sources of moisture supplying precipitation over every ice-free land location for the period 1979–2005. The evaporative source patterns for any location and time period are effectively two-dimensional probability distributions. As such, the evaporative sources for extreme situations like droughts or wet intervals can be compared to the corresponding climatological distributions using the method of relative entropy. Significant differences are found to be common and widespread for droughts, but not wet periods, when monthly data are examined. At pentad temporal resolution, which is more able to isolate floods and situations of atmospheric rivers, values of relative entropy over North America are typically 50%–400% larger than at monthly time scales. Significant differences suggest that moisture transport may be a key factor in precipitation extremes. Where evaporative sources do not change significantly, it implies other local causes may underlie the extreme events.

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Richard Seager, Lisa Goddard, Jennifer Nakamura, Naomi Henderson, and Dong Eun Lee

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The causes of the Texas–northern Mexico drought during 2010–11 are shown, using observations, reanalyses, and model simulations, to arise from a combination of ocean forcing and internal atmospheric variability. The drought began in fall 2010 and winter 2010/11 as a La Niña event developed in the tropical Pacific Ocean. Climate models forced by observed sea surface temperatures (SSTs) produced dry conditions in fall 2010 through spring 2011 associated with transient eddy moisture flux divergence related to a northward shift of the Pacific–North American storm track, typical of La Niña events. In contrast the observed drought was not associated with such a clear shift of the transient eddy fields and instead was significantly influenced by internal atmospheric variability including the negative North Atlantic Oscillation of winter 2010/11, which created mean flow moisture divergence and drying over the southern Plains and southeast United States. The models suggest that drought continuation into summer 2011 was not strongly SST forced. Mean flow circulation and moisture divergence anomalies were responsible for the summer 2011 drought, arising from either internal atmospheric variability or a response to dry summer soils not captured by the models. The summer of 2011 was one of the two driest and hottest summers over recent decades but it does not represent a clear outlier to the strong inverse relation between summer precipitation and temperature in the region. Seasonal forecasts at 3.5-month lead time did predict onset of the drought in fall and winter 2010/11 but not intensification into summer 2011, demonstrating the current, and likely inherent, inability to predict important aspects of North American droughts.

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Zengchao Hao and Amir AghaKouchak

Abstract

Accurate and reliable drought monitoring is essential to drought mitigation efforts and reduction of social vulnerability. A variety of indices, such as the standardized precipitation index (SPI), are used for drought monitoring based on different indicator variables. Because of the complexity of drought phenomena in their causation and impact, drought monitoring based on a single variable may be insufficient for detecting drought conditions in a prompt and reliable manner. This study outlines a multivariate, multi-index drought monitoring framework, namely, the multivariate standardized drought index (MSDI), for describing droughts based on the states of precipitation and soil moisture. In this study, the MSDI is evaluated against U.S. Drought Monitor (USDM) data as well as the commonly used standardized indices for drought monitoring, including detecting drought onset, persistence, and spatial extent across the continental United States. The results indicate that MSDI includes attractive properties, such as higher probability of drought detection, compared to individual precipitation and soil moisture–based drought indices. This study shows that the MSDI leads to drought information generally consistent with the USDM and provides additional information and insights into drought monitoring.

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Shahrbanou Madadgar and Hamid Moradkhani

Abstract

Seasonal drought forecasting is presented within a multivariate probabilistic framework. The standardized streamflow index (SSI) is used to characterize hydrologic droughts with different severities across the Gunnison River basin in the upper Colorado River basin. Since streamflow, and subsequently hydrologic droughts, are autocorrelated variables in time, this study presents a multivariate probabilistic approach using copula functions to perform drought forecasting within a Bayesian framework. The spring flow (April–June) is considered as the forecast variable and found to have the highest correlations with the previous winter (January–March) and fall (October–December). Incorporating copula functions into the Bayesian framework, two different forecast models are established to estimate the hydrologic drought of spring given either the previous winter (first-order conditional model) or previous winter and fall (second-order conditional model). Conditional probability density functions (PDFs) and cumulative distribution functions (CDFs) are generated to characterize the significant probabilistic features of spring droughts. According to forecasts, the spring drought is more sensitive to the winter status than the fall status, which approves the results of prior correlation analysis. The 90% predictive bound of the spring-flow forecast indicates the efficiency of the proposed model in estimating the spring droughts. The proposed model is compared with the conventional forecast model, the ensemble streamflow prediction (ESP), and it is found that their forecasts are generally in agreement with each other. However, the forecast uncertainty of the new method is more reliable than the ESP method. The new probabilistic forecast model can provide insights to water resources managers and stakeholders to facilitate the decision making and developing drought mitigation plans.

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Xing Yuan, Eric F. Wood, Nathaniel W. Chaney, Justin Sheffield, Jonghun Kam, Miaoling Liang, and Kaiyu Guan

Abstract

As a natural phenomenon, drought can have devastating impacts on local populations through food insecurity and famine in the developing world, such as in Africa. In this study, the authors have established a seasonal hydrologic forecasting system for Africa. The system is based on the Climate Forecast System, version 2 (CFSv2), and the Variable Infiltration Capacity (VIC) land surface model. With a set of 26-yr (1982–2007) seasonal hydrologic hindcasts run at 0.25°, the probabilistic drought forecasts are validated using the 6-month Standard Precipitation Index (SPI6) and soil moisture percentile as indices. In terms of Brier skill score (BSS), the system is more skillful than climatology out to 3–5 months, except for the forecast of soil moisture drought over central Africa. The spatial distribution of BSS, which is similar to the pattern of persistency, shows more heterogeneity for soil moisture than the SPI6. Drought forecasts based on SPI6 are generally more skillful than for soil moisture, and their differences originate from the skill attribute of resolution rather than reliability. However, the soil moisture drought forecast can be more skillful than SPI6 at the beginning of the rainy season over western and southern Africa because of the strong annual cycle. Singular value decomposition (SVD) analysis of African precipitation and global SSTs indicates that CFSv2 reproduces the ENSO dominance on rainy season drought forecasts quite well, but the corresponding SVD mode from observations and CFSv2 only account for less than 24% and 31% of the covariance, respectively, suggesting that further understanding of drought drivers, including regional atmospheric dynamics and land–atmosphere coupling, is necessary.

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Jason A. Otkin, Martha C. Anderson, Christopher Hain, Iliana E. Mladenova, Jeffrey B. Basara, and Mark Svoboda

Abstract

Reliable indicators of rapid drought onset can help to improve the effectiveness of drought early warning systems. In this study, the evaporative stress index (ESI), which uses remotely sensed thermal infrared imagery to estimate evapotranspiration (ET), is compared to drought classifications in the U.S. Drought Monitor (USDM) and standard precipitation-based drought indicators for several cases of rapid drought development that have occurred across the United States in recent years. Analysis of meteorological time series from the North American Regional Reanalysis indicates that these events are typically characterized by warm air temperature and low cloud cover anomalies, often with high winds and dewpoint depressions that serve to hasten evaporative depletion of soil moisture reserves. Standardized change anomalies depicting the rate at which various multiweek ESI composites changed over different time intervals are computed to more easily identify areas experiencing rapid changes in ET. Overall, the results demonstrate that ESI change anomalies can provide early warning of incipient drought impacts on agricultural systems, as indicated in crop condition reports collected by the National Agricultural Statistics Service. In each case examined, large negative change anomalies indicative of rapidly drying conditions were either coincident with the introduction of drought in the USDM or lead the USDM drought depiction by several weeks, depending on which ESI composite and time-differencing interval was used. Incorporation of the ESI as a data layer used in the construction of the USDM may improve timely depictions of moisture conditions and vegetation stress associated with flash drought events.

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Martha C. Anderson, Christopher Hain, Jason Otkin, Xiwu Zhan, Kingtse Mo, Mark Svoboda, Brian Wardlow, and Agustin Pimstein

Abstract

Comparison of multiple hydrologic indicators, derived from independent data sources and modeling approaches, may improve confidence in signals of emerging drought, particularly during periods of rapid onset. This paper compares the evaporative stress index (ESI)—a diagnostic fast-response indicator describing evapotranspiration (ET) deficits derived within a thermal remote sensing energy balance framework—with prognostic estimates of soil moisture (SM), ET, and runoff anomalies generated with the North American Land Data Assimilation System (NLDAS). Widely used empirical indices based on thermal remote sensing [vegetation health index (VHI)] and precipitation percentiles [standardized precipitation index (SPI)] were also included to assess relative performance. Spatial and temporal correlations computed between indices over the contiguous United States were compared with historical drought classifications recorded in the U.S. Drought Monitor (USDM). Based on correlation results, improved forms for the ESI were identified, incorporating a Penman–Monteith reference ET scaling flux and implementing a temporal smoothing algorithm at the pixel level. Of all indices evaluated, anomalies in the NLDAS ensemble-averaged SM provided the highest correlations with USDM drought classes, while the ESI yielded the best performance of the remote sensing indices. The VHI provided reasonable correlations, except under conditions of energy-limited vegetation growth during the cold season and at high latitudes. Change indices computed from ESI and SM time series agree well, and in combination offer a good indicator of change in drought severity class in the USDM, often preceding USDM class deterioration by several weeks. Results suggest that a merged ESI–SM change indicator may provide valuable early warning of rapidly evolving “flash drought” conditions.

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