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Michael Hayes, Mark Svoboda, Nicole Wall, and Melissa Widhalm

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Jason A. Otkin, Martha C. Anderson, Christopher Hain, and Mark Svoboda

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In this study, the potential utility of using rapid temporal changes in drought indices to provide early warning of an elevated risk for drought development over subseasonal time scales is assessed. Standardized change anomalies were computed each week during the 2000–13 growing seasons for drought indices depicting anomalies in evapotranspiration, precipitation, and soil moisture. A rapid change index (RCI) that encapsulates the accumulated magnitude of rapid changes in the weekly anomalies was computed each week for each drought index, and then a simple statistical method was used to convert the RCI values into drought intensification probabilities depicting the likelihood that drought severity as analyzed by the U.S. Drought Monitor (USDM) would worsen in subsequent weeks. Local and regional case study analyses revealed that elevated drought intensification probabilities often occur several weeks prior to changes in the USDM and in topsoil moisture and crop condition datasets compiled by the National Agricultural Statistics Service. Statistical analyses showed that the RCI-derived probabilities are most reliable and skillful over the central and eastern United States in regions most susceptible to rapid drought development. Taken together, these results suggest that tools used to identify areas experiencing rapid changes in drought indices may be useful components of future drought early warning systems.

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Jason A. Otkin, Martha C. Anderson, Christopher Hain, and Mark Svoboda

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In this study, the ability of a new drought metric based on thermal infrared remote sensing imagery to provide early warning of an elevated risk for drought intensification is assessed. This new metric, called the rapid change index (RCI), is designed to highlight areas undergoing rapid changes in moisture stress as inferred from weekly changes in the evaporative stress index (ESI) generated using the Atmosphere–Land Exchange Inverse (ALEXI) surface energy balance model. Two case study analyses across the central United States revealed that the initial appearance of negative RCI values indicative of rapid increases in moisture stress preceded the introduction of severe-to-exceptional drought in the U.S. Drought Monitor (USDM) by more than 4 weeks. Using data from 2000 to 2012, the probability of USDM intensification of at least one, two, or three categories over different time periods was computed as a function of the RCI magnitude. Compared to baseline probabilities, the RCI-derived probabilities often indicate a much higher risk for drought development that increases greatly as the RCI becomes more negative. When the RCI is strongly negative, many areas are characterized by intensification probabilities that are several times higher than the baseline climatology. The highest probabilities encompass much of the central and eastern United States, with the greatest increase over climatology within regions most susceptible to rapid drought development. These results show that the RCI provides useful drought early warning capabilities that could be used to alert stakeholders of an increased risk for drought development over subseasonal time scales.

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Tsegaye Tadesse, Nicole Wall, Michael Hayes, Mark Svoboda, and Deborah Bathke
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Zachary T. Leasor, Steven M. Quiring, and Mark D. Svoboda

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Drought is a prominent climatic hazard in the south-central United States. Drought severity is frequently classified using the categories established by the U.S. Drought Monitor (USDM). This study evaluates whether the thresholds for the standardized precipitation index (SPI) used by the USDM accurately classify drought severity. This study uses the SPI based on PRISM precipitation data from 1900 to 2015 to evaluate drought severity in Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. The results show that the fixed SPI thresholds for the USDM drought categories may lead to a systematic underestimation of drought severity in arid regions. To address this issue, objective drought thresholds were developed at each location by fitting a cumulative distribution function at each location to ensure that the observed frequency of drought in each severity category (D0–D4) matched the theoretical expectations of the USDM. This approach reduces the systematic biases in drought severity across the western portion of the study region. Therefore, we recommend developing objective drought thresholds for each location and SPI time scale (e.g., 1, 3, and 6 months). This method can be used to develop objective drought thresholds for any drought index and climate region of interest.

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Jason A. Otkin, Mark Shafer, Mark Svoboda, Brian Wardlow, Martha C. Anderson, Christopher Hain, and Jeffrey Basara
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David J. Lorenz, Jason A. Otkin, Mark Svoboda, Christopher R. Hain, Martha C. Anderson, and Yafang Zhong

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Probabilistic forecasts of U.S. Drought Monitor (USDM) intensification over 2-, 4-, and 8-week time periods are developed based on recent anomalies in precipitation, evapotranspiration, and soil moisture. These statistical forecasts are computed using logistic regression with cross validation. While recent precipitation, evapotranspiration, and soil moisture do provide skillful forecasts, it is found that additional information on the current state of the USDM adds significant skill to the forecasts. The USDM state information takes the form of a metric that quantifies the “distance” from the next-higher drought category using a nondiscrete estimate of the current USDM state. This adds skill because USDM states that are close to the next-higher drought category are more likely to intensify than states that are farther from this threshold. The method shows skill over most of the United States but is most skillful over the north-central United States, where the cross-validated Brier skill score averages 0.20 for both 2- and 4-week forecasts. The 8-week forecasts are less skillful in most locations. The 2- and 4-week probabilities have very good reliability. The 8-week probabilities, on the other hand, are noticeably overconfident. For individual drought events, the method shows the most skill when forecasting high-amplitude flash droughts and when large regions of the United States are experiencing intensifying drought.

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David J. Lorenz, Jason A. Otkin, Mark Svoboda, Christopher R. Hain, Martha C. Anderson, and Yafang Zhong

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The U.S. Drought Monitor (USDM) classifies drought into five discrete dryness/drought categories based on expert synthesis of numerous data sources. In this study, an empirical methodology is presented for creating a nondiscrete USDM index that simultaneously 1) represents the dryness/wetness value on a continuum and 2) is most consistent with the time scales and processes of the actual USDM. A continuous USDM representation will facilitate USDM forecasting methods, which will benefit from knowledge of where, within a discrete drought class, the current drought state most probably lies. The continuous USDM is developed such that the actual discrete USDM can be reconstructed by discretizing the continuous USDM based on the 30th, 20th, 10th, 5th, and 2nd percentiles—corresponding with USDM definitions for the D4–D0 drought classes. Anomalies in precipitation, soil moisture, and evapotranspiration over a range of different time scales are used as predictors to estimate the continuous USDM. The methodology is fundamentally probabilistic, meaning that the probability density function (PDF) of the continuous USDM is estimated and therefore the degree of uncertainty in the fit is properly characterized. Goodness-of-fit metrics and direct comparisons between the actual and predicted USDM analyses during different seasons and years indicate that this objective drought classification method is well correlated with the current USDM analyses. In Part II, this continuous USDM index will be used to improve intraseasonal USDM intensification forecasts because it is capable of distinguishing between USDM states that are either far from or near to the next-higher drought category.

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Jay Lawrimore, Richard R. Heim Jr., Mark Svoboda, Val Swail, and Phil J. Englehart
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Michael J. Hayes, Mark. D. Svoboda, Donald A. Wiihite, and Olga V. Vanyarkho

Droughts are difficult to detect and monitor. Drought indices, most commonly the Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI), have been used with limited success as operational drought monitoring tools and triggers for policy responses. Recently, a new index, the Standardized Precipitation Index (SPI), was developed to improve drought detection and monitoring capabilities. The SPI has several characteristics that are an improvement over previous indices, including its simplicity and temporal flexibility, that allow its application for water resources on all timescales. In this article, the 1996 drought in the southern plains and southwestern United States is examined using the SPI. A series of maps are used to illustrate how the SPI would have assisted in being able to detect the onset of the drought and monitor its progression. A case study investigating the drought in greater detail for Texas is also given. The SPI demonstrated that it is a tool that should be used operationally as part of a state, regional, or national drought watch system in the United States. During the 1996 drought, the SPI detected the onset of the drought at least 1 month in advance of the PDSI. This timeliness will be invaluable for improving mitigation and response actions of state and federal government to drought-affected regions in the future.

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