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Hanh Nguyen
,
Matthew C. Wheeler
,
Jason A. Otkin
,
Thong Nguyen-Huy
, and
Tim Cowan

Abstract

This study describes flash drought (FD) inferred from the evaporative stress index (ESI) over Australia and its relationship to vegetation. During 1975–2020, FD occurrence ranges from less than 1 per decade in the central arid regions to 10 per decade toward the coasts. Although FD can occur in any season, its occurrence is more frequent in summer in the north, winter in the southern interior and southwest, and across a range of months in the far southeast and Tasmania. With a view toward real-time monitoring, FD “declaration” is defined as the date when the ESI declines to at least −1, i.e., drought conditions, after at least 2 weeks of rapid decline. Composite analysis shows that evaporative demand begins to increase about 5–6 weeks before declaration with an increase in solar radiation, while evapotranspiration initially increases with evaporative demand but then decreases in response to the soil moisture depletion. Solar radiation increases simultaneously with precipitation deficit, both reaching their peak around declaration. FD intensity peaks with soil moisture depletion, 2–3 weeks after declaration. The composite wind speed only shows a modest increase around declaration. The composite FD ends 4 weeks after rapid decreases in solar radiation and increases in precipitation. Satellite-derived vegetation health composites show pronounced decline in the nonforested regions, peaking about 4–8 weeks after FD declaration, followed by a recovery period lasting about 12 weeks after flash drought ends. The forest-dominated regions, however, are little impacted. Modeled pasture growth data show reduced values for up to 3 months after the declaration month covering the main agricultural areas of Australia.

Significance Statement

Flash drought describes a fast intensification or rapid development of drought conditions with potential severe impacts on agriculture and ecosystems. This study describes the climatology and typical evolution of flash drought over Australia for the period 1975–2020. An objective definition of flash drought, using high-resolution observational-based datasets, is proposed and its spatiotemporal variability is provided, as well as its relationship with vegetation health and pasture growth. This constitutes a guideline for understanding flash drought in Australia and its impacts on vegetation.

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Hanh Nguyen
,
Jason A. Otkin
,
Matthew C. Wheeler
,
Pandora Hope
,
Blair Trewin
, and
Christa Pudmenzky

Abstract

The seasonal cycle of the evaporative stress index (ESI) over Australia, and its relationship to observed rainfall and temperature, is examined. The ESI is defined as the standardized anomaly of the ratio of actual evapotranspiration to potential evapotranspiration, and as such, is a measure of vegetation moisture stress associated with agricultural or ecological drought. The ESI is computed using the daily output of version 6 of the Bureau of Meteorology’s landscape water balance model [Australian Water Resource Assessment Landscape (AWRA-L)] on a 5-km horizontal grid over a 45-yr period (1975–2019). Here we show that the ESI exhibits marked spatial and seasonal variability and can be used to accurately monitor drought across Australia, where ESI values less than negative one indicate drought. While the ESI is highly correlated with rainfall as expected, its relationship with temperature only becomes significant during the warmer seasons, suggesting a threshold above which temperature may affect vegetation stress. Our analysis also shows that the ESI tends to be strongly negative (i.e., indicating drought) during El Niño and positive phases of the Indian Ocean dipole (IOD), when conditions tend to be anomalously hot and dry. A negative phase of the southern annular mode also tends to drive negative ESI values during austral spring with a one-month delay.

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