Articles | Volume 19, issue 5
Review article
20 May 2015
Review article |  | 20 May 2015

Multi-annual droughts in the English Lowlands: a review of their characteristics and climate drivers in the winter half-year

C. K. Folland, J. Hannaford, J. P. Bloomfield, M. Kendon, C. Svensson, B. P. Marchant, J. Prior, and E. Wallace

Abstract. The English Lowlands is a relatively dry, densely populated region in the south-east of the UK in which water is used intensively. Consequently, parts of the region are water-stressed and face growing water resource pressures. The region is heavily dependent on groundwater and particularly vulnerable to long, multi-annual droughts primarily associated with dry winters. Despite this vulnerability, the atmospheric drivers of multi-annual droughts in the region are poorly understood, an obstacle to developing appropriate drought management strategies, including monitoring and early warning systems. To advance our understanding, we assess known key climate drivers in the winter half-year (October–March) and their likely relationships with multi-annual droughts in the region. We characterise historic multi-annual drought episodes back to 1910 for the English Lowlands using various meteorological and hydrological data sets. Multi-annual droughts are identified using a gridded precipitation series for the entire region, and refined using the Standardized Precipitation Index (SPI), Standardized Streamflow Index (SSI) and Standardized Groundwater level Index (SGI) applied to regional-scale river flow and groundwater time series. We explore linkages between a range of potential climatic driving factors and precipitation, river flow and groundwater level indicators in the English Lowlands for the winter half-year. The drivers or forcings include El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO), the North Atlantic tripole sea surface temperature (SST) pattern, the Quasi-Biennial Oscillation (QBO), solar and volcanic forcing and the Atlantic Multi-decadal Oscillation (AMO). As expected, no single driver convincingly explains the occurrence of any multi-annual drought in the historical record. However, we demonstrate, for the first time, an association between La Niña episodes and winter rainfall deficits in some major multi-annual drought episodes in the English Lowlands. We also show significant (albeit relatively weak) links between ENSO and drought indicators applied to river flow and groundwater levels. We also show that some of the other drivers listed above are likely to influence English Lowlands rainfall. We conclude by signposting a direction for this future research effort.

Short summary
The English Lowlands is a heavily populated, water-stressed region, which is vulnerable to long droughts typically associated with dry winters. We conduct a long-term (1910-present) quantitative analysis of precipitation, flow and groundwater droughts for the region, and then review potential climatic drivers. No single driver is dominant, but we demonstrate a physical link between La Nina conditions, winter rainfall and long droughts in the region.