This study elucidates drought characteristics in China during 1980–2015 using two commonly used meteorological drought indices: standardized precipitation index (SPI) and standardized precipitation–evapotranspiration index (SPEI). The results show that SPEI characterizes an overall increase in drought severity, area, and frequency during 1998–2015 compared with those during 1980–97, mainly due to the increasing potential evapotranspiration. By contrast, SPI does not reveal this phenomenon since precipitation does not exhibit a significant change overall. We further identify individual drought events using the three-dimensional (i.e., longitude, latitude, and time) clustering algorithm and apply the severity–area–duration (SAD) method to examine the drought spatiotemporal dynamics. Compared to SPI, SPEI identifies a lower drought frequency but with larger total drought areas overall. Additionally, SPEI identifies a greater number of severe drought events but a smaller number of slight drought events than the SPI. Approximately 30% of SPI-detected drought grids are not identified as drought by SPEI, and 40% of SPEI-detected drought grids are not recognized as drought by SPI. Both indices can roughly capture the major drought events, but SPEI-detected drought events are overall more severe than SPI. From the SAD analysis, SPI tends to identify drought as more severe over small areas within 1 million km2 and short durations less than 2 months, whereas SPEI tends to delineate drought as more severe across expansive areas larger than 3 million km2 and periods longer than 3 months. Given the fact that potential evapotranspiration increases in a warming climate, this study suggests SPEI may be more suitable than SPI in monitoring droughts under climate change.

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