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

A systematic assessment of drought termination in the United Kingdom

Simon Parry, Robert L. Wilby, Christel Prudhomme, and Paul J. Wood

Abstract. Drought termination can be associated with dramatic transitions from drought to flooding. Greater attention may be given to these newsworthy and memorable events, but drought terminations that proceed gradually also pose challenges for water resource managers. This paper defines drought termination as a distinctive phase of the event. Using observed river flow records for 52 UK catchments, a more systematic and objective approach for detecting drought terminations is demonstrated. The parameters of the approach are informed by a sensitivity analysis that ensures a focus on terminations of multi-season to multi-year droughts. The resulting inventory of 467 drought terminations provides an unprecedented historical perspective on this phenomenon in the UK. Nationally and regionally coherent drought termination events are identifiable, although their characteristics vary both between and within major episodes. Contrasting drought termination events in 1995–1998 and 2009–2012 are examined in greater depth. The data are also used to assess potential linkages between metrics of drought termination and catchment properties. The duration of drought termination is moderately negatively correlated with elevation (rs =  −0.47) and catchment average rainfall (rs =  −0.42), suggesting that wetter catchments in upland areas of the UK tend to experience shorter drought terminations. More urbanized catchments tend to have gradual drought terminations (contrary to expectations of flashy hydrological response in such areas), although this may also reflect the type of catchments typical of lowland England. Significant correlations are found between the duration of the drought development phase and both the duration (rs =  −0.29) and rate (rs =  0.28) of drought termination. This suggests that prolonged drought development phases tend to be followed by shorter and more abrupt drought terminations. The inventory helps to place individual events within a long-term context. The drought termination phase in 2009–2012 was, at the time, regarded as exceptional in terms of magnitude and spatial footprint, but the Thames river flow record identifies several comparable events before 1930. The chronology could, in due course, provide a basis for exploring the complex drivers, long-term variability, and impacts of drought termination events.

Short summary
This paper identifies periods of recovery from drought in 52 river flow records from the UK between 1883 and 2013. The approach detects 459 events that vary in space and time. This large dataset allows individual events to be compared with others in the historical record. The ability to objectively appraise contemporary events against the historical record has not previously been possible, and may allow water managers to prepare for a range of outcomes at the end of a drought.