Articles | Volume 20, issue 7
Research article
04 Jul 2016
Research article |  | 04 Jul 2016

A quantitative analysis to objectively appraise drought indicators and model drought impacts

S. Bachmair, C. Svensson, J. Hannaford, L. J. Barker, and K. Stahl

Abstract. Drought monitoring and early warning is an important measure to enhance resilience towards drought. While there are numerous operational systems using different drought indicators, there is no consensus on which indicator best represents drought impact occurrence for any given sector. Furthermore, thresholds are widely applied in these indicators but, to date, little empirical evidence exists as to which indicator thresholds trigger impacts on society, the economy, and ecosystems. The main obstacle for evaluating commonly used drought indicators is a lack of information on drought impacts. Our aim was therefore to exploit text-based data from the European Drought Impact report Inventory (EDII) to identify indicators that are meaningful for region-, sector-, and season-specific impact occurrence, and to empirically determine indicator thresholds. In addition, we tested the predictability of impact occurrence based on the best-performing indicators. To achieve these aims we applied a correlation analysis and an ensemble regression tree approach, using Germany and the UK (the most data-rich countries in the EDII) as test beds. As candidate indicators we chose two meteorological indicators (Standardized Precipitation Index, SPI, and Standardized Precipitation Evaporation Index, SPEI) and two hydrological indicators (streamflow and groundwater level percentiles). The analysis revealed that accumulation periods of SPI and SPEI best linked to impact occurrence are longer for the UK compared with Germany, but there is variability within each country, among impact categories and, to some degree, seasons. The median of regression tree splitting values, which we regard as estimates of thresholds of impact occurrence, was around −1 for SPI and SPEI in the UK; distinct differences between northern/northeastern vs. southern/central regions were found for Germany. Predictions with the ensemble regression tree approach yielded reasonable results for regions with good impact data coverage. The predictions also provided insights into the EDII, in particular highlighting drought events where missing impact reports may reflect a lack of recording rather than true absence of impacts. Overall, the presented quantitative framework proved to be a useful tool for evaluating drought indicators, and to model impact occurrence. In summary, this study demonstrates the information gain for drought monitoring and early warning through impact data collection and analysis. It highlights the important role that quantitative analysis with impact data can have in providing "ground truth" for drought indicators, alongside more traditional stakeholder-led approaches.

Short summary
To date, there is little empirical evidence as to which indicator best represents drought impact occurrence for any given region and/or sector. We therefore exploited text-based data from the European Drought Impact report Inventory (EDII) to evaluate drought indicators, empirically determine indicator thresholds, and model drought impacts. A quantitative analysis using Germany and the UK as a testbed proved to be a useful tool for objectively appraising drought indicators.