NIDIS-Funded Study Finds That Drought Assessment Has Been Outpaced by Climate Change

NIDIS-Funded Study Finds That Drought Assessment Has Been Outpaced by Climate Change

Despite the acceleration of climate change, assumptions of a stationary climate are still incorporated into the management of water resources in the U.S., with a preference towards 60-year (or longer) observation record lengths for drought characterization. Bias emerges by assuming that conditions from the early and mid-20th century are as likely to occur in today’s climate. In a new study funded in part by NIDIS, researchers from the Montana Climate Office evaluated the degree to which assumptions of a climate stationarity may bias drought assessment.

The study reveals that drought assessment error is relatively low with short climatology lengths, and error (with respect to the more recent climate) can increase substantially when using longer reference frames where climate is changing rapidly. This increase in error results in patterns of drought metric bias. “Hot spots” of dry bias—i.e., where the long climatology suggests conditions are drier than the shorter, 30-year climatology—were strongly apparent in the southeastern and southwestern US, especially during periods of meteorological drought. Contrary to this result, some locations (such as the Pacific Northwest) are trending wetter, and exhibit a strong wet bias during dry times.

Researchers with the Montana Climate Office will present key findings from the study at the October 6 NIDIS Executive Council Meeting.

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For more information, contact Britt Parker.




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Americans’ health, security and economic wellbeing are tied to climate and weather. Every day, we see communities grappling with environmental challenges due to unusual or extreme events related to climate and weather.