Emergent trends complicate the interpretation of the United States Drought Monitor (USDM)


Effective drought management must be informed by an understanding of whether and how current drought monitoring and assessment practices represent underlying nonstationary climate conditions, either naturally occurring or forced by climate change. Here we investigate the emerging climatology and associated trends in drought classes defined by the United States Drought Monitor (USDM), a weekly product that, since 2000, has been used to inform drought management in the United States. The USDM classifies drought intensity based in part on threshold percentiles in key hydroclimate quantities. Here we assess how those USDM-defined drought threshold percentiles have changed over the last 23 years, examining precipitation, runoff, soil moisture (SM), terrestrial water storage (TWS), vapor pressure deficit (VPD), and near-surface air temperature. We also assess underlying trends in the frequency of drought classifications across the U.S. Our analysis suggests that the frequency of drought class occurrence is exceeding the threshold percentiles defined by the USDM in a number of regions in the United States, particularly in the American West, where the last 23 years have emerged as a prolonged dry period. These trends are also reflected in percentile-based thresholds in precipitation, runoff, SM, TWS, VPD, and temperature. Our results emphasize that while the USDM appears to be accurately reflecting observed nonstationarity in the physical climate, such trends raise critical questions about whether and how drought diagnosis, classification, and monitoring should address long-term intervals of wet and dry periods or trends.

AGU Advances, 5(2), e2023AV001070
Zhiying Li
Zhiying Li
Assistant Professor