Articles | Volume 20, issue 10
Research article
07 Oct 2016
Research article |  | 07 Oct 2016

Controls on hydrologic drought duration in near-natural streamflow in Europe and the USA

Erik Tijdeman, Sophie Bachmair, and Kerstin Stahl

Abstract. Climate classification systems, such as Köppen–Geiger and the aridity index, are used in large-scale drought studies to stratify regions with similar hydro-climatic drought properties. What is currently lacking is a large-scale evaluation of the relation between climate and observed streamflow drought characteristics. In this study we explored how suitable common climate classifications are for differentiating catchments according to their characteristic hydrologic drought duration and whether drought durations within the same climate classes are comparable between different regions. This study uses a dataset of 808 near-natural streamflow records from Europe and the USA to answer these questions. First, we grouped drought duration distributions of each record over different classes of four climate classification systems and five individual climate and catchment controls. Then, we compared these drought duration distributions of all classes within each climate classification system or classification based on individual controls. Results showed that climate classification systems that include absolute precipitation in their classification scheme (e.g., the aridity index) are most suitable for differentiating catchments according to drought duration. However, differences in duration distributions were found for the same climate classes in Europe and the USA. These differences are likely caused by differences in precipitation, in catchment controls as expressed by the base flow index and in differences in climate beyond the total water balance (e.g., seasonality in precipitation), which have been shown to exert a control on drought duration as well. Climate classification systems that include an absolute precipitation control can be tailored to drought monitoring and early warning systems for Europe and the USA to define regions with different sensitivities to hydrologic droughts, which, for example, have been found to be higher in catchments with a low aridity index. However, stratification of catchments according to these climate classification systems is likely to be complemented with information of other climate classification systems (Köppen–Geiger) and individual climate and catchment controls (precipitation and the base flow index), especially in a comparative study between Europe and the USA.