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A water-energy balance approach for multi-category drought assessment across globally diverse hydrological basins

Zhang, Baoqing, AghaKouchak, Amir, Yang, Yuting, Wei, Jiahua, Wang, Guangqian
Agricultural and forest meteorology 2019 v.264 pp. 247-265
basins, climate, drought, dry environmental conditions, energy, evapotranspiration
Different categories of droughts (e.g., meteorological, agricultural, hydrological), and their multi-scalar features often make description of drought onset, persistence, and termination challenging and often subjective. Here we show that a water-energy balance based indicator, named Standardized Moisture Anomaly Index (SZI), better captures multiple categories of droughts and their multi-scalar features. We globally evaluate and compare the performance of SZI with existing drought indicators that use potential evapotranspiration (PET) as a measure of atmospheric water demand including the Standardized Precipitation Evapotranspiration Index (SPEI) and self-calibrated Palmer Drought Severity Index (scPDSI). We show that while PET is a good indicator for characterizing the climate aridity, using it as a measure of atmospheric water demand for drought analysis leads to misrepresentation of droughts, especially over water-limited (non-humid) regions where the actual evapotranspiration is primarily dominated by water availability rather than energy (or PET). The main advantage of SZI is that, instead of PET, it uses a variable termed climatically appropriate precipitation for existing conditions (Pˆ) as the atmospheric water demand metric. Investigating droughts over 32 large basins across the globe, we show that the SZI can better represent meteorological, hydrological, and agricultural droughts compared to SPEI (especially in non-humid basins; 18 out of 32 basins) and scPDSI at multiple time scales. Given that SZI is physically more reasonable in reflecting surface water-energy balance over both humid and non-humid regions, it enables better characterization of different types of droughts in different climatic regions.