Articles | Volume 22, issue 1
Research article
01 Feb 2018
Research article |  | 01 Feb 2018

Searching for the optimal drought index and timescale combination to detect drought: a case study from the lower Jinsha River basin, China

Javier Fluixá-Sanmartín, Deng Pan, Luzia Fischer, Boris Orlowsky, Javier García-Hernández, Frédéric Jordan, Christoph Haemmig, Fangwei Zhang, and Jijun Xu

Abstract. Drought indices based on precipitation are commonly used to identify and characterize droughts. Due to the general complexity of droughts, the comparison of index-identified events with droughts at different levels of the complete system, including soil humidity or river discharges, relies typically on model simulations of the latter, entailing potentially significant uncertainties.

The present study explores the potential of using precipitation-based indices to reproduce observed droughts in the lower part of the Jinsha River basin (JRB), proposing an innovative approach for a catchment-wide drought detection and characterization. Two indicators, namely the Overall Drought Extension (ODE) and the Overall Drought Indicator (ODI), have been defined. These indicators aim at identifying and characterizing drought events on the basin scale, using results from four meteorological drought indices (standardized precipitation index, SPI; rainfall anomaly index, RAI; percent of normal precipitation, PN; deciles, DEC) calculated at different locations of the basin and for different timescales. Collected historical information on drought events is used to contrast results obtained with the indicators.

This method has been successfully applied to the lower Jinsha River basin in China, a region prone to frequent and severe droughts. Historical drought events that occurred from 1960 to 2014 have been compiled and cataloged from different sources, in a challenging process. The analysis of the indicators shows a good agreement with the recorded historical drought events on the basin scale. It has been found that the timescale that best reproduces observed events across all the indices is the 6-month timescale.

Short summary
In China, droughts represent a severe threat to socioeconomic development and ecosystems. It is thus necessary to characterize these events in order to reduce and anticipate their impacts. This study proposes an innovative approach for a catchment-wide drought detection and characterization. Two overall drought indicators have been defined and calibrated with real historical events, which have been collected and cataloged.