Articles | Volume 20, issue 6
Research article
24 Jun 2016
Research article |  | 24 Jun 2016

From meteorological to hydrological drought using standardised indicators

Lucy J. Barker, Jamie Hannaford, Andrew Chiverton, and Cecilia Svensson

Abstract. Drought monitoring and early warning (M & EW) systems are a crucial component of drought preparedness. M & EW systems typically make use of drought indicators such as the Standardised Precipitation Index (SPI), but such indicators are not widely used in the UK. More generally, such tools have not been well developed for hydrological (i.e. streamflow) drought. To fill these research gaps, this paper characterises meteorological and hydrological droughts, and the propagation from one to the other, using the SPI and the related Standardised Streamflow Index (SSI), with the objective of improving understanding of the drought hazard in the UK. SPI and SSI time series were calculated for 121 near-natural catchments in the UK for accumulation periods of 1–24 months. From these time series, drought events were identified and for each event, the duration and severity were calculated. The relationship between meteorological and hydrological drought was examined by cross-correlating the 1-month SSI with various SPI accumulation periods. Finally, the influence of climate and catchment properties on the hydrological drought characteristics and propagation was investigated. Results showed that at short accumulation periods meteorological drought characteristics showed little spatial variability, whilst hydrological drought characteristics showed fewer but longer and more severe droughts in the south and east than in the north and west of the UK. Propagation characteristics showed a similar spatial pattern with catchments underlain by productive aquifers, mostly in the south and east, having longer SPI accumulation periods strongly correlated with the 1-month SSI. For catchments in the north and west of the UK, which typically have little catchment storage, standard-period average annual rainfall was strongly correlated with hydrological drought and propagation characteristics. However, in the south and east, catchment properties describing storage (such as base flow index, the percentage of highly productive fractured rock and typical soil wetness) were more influential on hydrological drought characteristics. This knowledge forms a basis for more informed application of standardised indicators in the UK in the future, which could aid in the development of improved M & EW systems. Given the lack of studies applying standardised indicators to hydrological droughts, and the diversity of catchment types encompassed here, the findings could prove valuable for enhancing the hydrological aspects of drought M & EW systems in both the UK and elsewhere.

Short summary
Standardised meteorological indicators are widely used in drought monitoring, but applications to hydrological drought are less extensive. Here we assess the utility of standardised indicators for characterising drought duration, severity and propagation in a diverse set of 121 UK catchments. Spatial variations in streamflow drought characteristics reflect differences in drought propagation behaviour that are themselves largely driven by heterogeneity in catchment properties around the UK.