Diagnostic classification of flash drought events reveals distinct classes of forcings and impacts

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  • 1 1 Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD, USA.
  • | 2 2 Irrigation and Hydraulics Department, Cairo University, Cairo, Egypt.
  • | 3 3 Department of Civil and Systems Engineering, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD, USA.
  • | 4 4 Space Science and Engineering Center, Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies, University of Wisconsin–Madison, WI, USA.
  • | 5 5 Hydrology and Remote Sensing Laboratory, Agricultural Research Service, USDA, MD, USA.
  • | 6 6 Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, University of California, Berkeley, CA, USA.
  • | 7 7 Earth and Environmental Sciences Area, Lawrence Berkeley National Lab., Berkeley, CA, USA.
  • | 8 8 Earth Science Office, NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, AL, USA.
  • | 9 9 Hydrological Sciences Laboratory, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, MD, USA.
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Abstract

Recent years have seen growing appreciation that rapidly intensifying “flash droughts” are significant climate hazards with major economic and ecological impacts. This has motivated efforts to inventory, monitor, and forecast flash drought events. Here we consider the question of whether the term “flash drought” comprises multiple distinct classes of event, which would imply that understanding and forecasting flash droughts might require more than one framework. To do this, we first extend and evaluate a soil moisture volatility-based flash drought definition that we introduced in previous work and use it to inventory the onset dates and severity of flash droughts across the Contiguous United States (CONUS) for the period 1979-2018. Using this inventory, we examine meteorological and land surface conditions associated with flash drought onset and recovery. These same meteorological and land surface conditions are then used to classify the flash droughts based on precursor conditions that may represent predictable drivers of the event. We find that distinct classes of flash drought can be diagnosed in the event inventory. Specifically, we describe three classes of flash drought: “dry and demanding” events for which antecedent evaporative demand is high and soil moisture is low, “evaporative” events with more modest antecedent evaporative demand and soil moisture anomalies, but positive antecedent evaporative anomalies, and “stealth” flash droughts, which are different from the other two classes in that precursor meteorological anomalies are modest relative to the other classes. The three classes exhibit somewhat different geographic and seasonal distributions. We conclude that soil moisture “flash droughts” are indeed a composite of distinct types of rapidly intensifying droughts, and that flash drought analyses and forecasts would benefit from approaches that recognize the existence of multiple phenomenological pathways.

Corresponding author: Mahmoud Osman, mahmoud.osman@jhu.com; mahosman01@gmail.com

Abstract

Recent years have seen growing appreciation that rapidly intensifying “flash droughts” are significant climate hazards with major economic and ecological impacts. This has motivated efforts to inventory, monitor, and forecast flash drought events. Here we consider the question of whether the term “flash drought” comprises multiple distinct classes of event, which would imply that understanding and forecasting flash droughts might require more than one framework. To do this, we first extend and evaluate a soil moisture volatility-based flash drought definition that we introduced in previous work and use it to inventory the onset dates and severity of flash droughts across the Contiguous United States (CONUS) for the period 1979-2018. Using this inventory, we examine meteorological and land surface conditions associated with flash drought onset and recovery. These same meteorological and land surface conditions are then used to classify the flash droughts based on precursor conditions that may represent predictable drivers of the event. We find that distinct classes of flash drought can be diagnosed in the event inventory. Specifically, we describe three classes of flash drought: “dry and demanding” events for which antecedent evaporative demand is high and soil moisture is low, “evaporative” events with more modest antecedent evaporative demand and soil moisture anomalies, but positive antecedent evaporative anomalies, and “stealth” flash droughts, which are different from the other two classes in that precursor meteorological anomalies are modest relative to the other classes. The three classes exhibit somewhat different geographic and seasonal distributions. We conclude that soil moisture “flash droughts” are indeed a composite of distinct types of rapidly intensifying droughts, and that flash drought analyses and forecasts would benefit from approaches that recognize the existence of multiple phenomenological pathways.

Corresponding author: Mahmoud Osman, mahmoud.osman@jhu.com; mahosman01@gmail.com
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