Drought -- National Drought Mitigation Center


Date of this Version



Journal of Climate (24)8 (April 2011) pp. 2025-2044; DOI: 10.1175/2010JCLI3812.1


The reliability of standard meteorological drought indices based on measurements of precipitation is limited by the spatial distribution and quality of currently available rainfall data. Furthermore, they reflect only one component of the surface hydrologic cycle, and they cannot readily capture nonprecipitation-based moisture inputs to the land surface system (e.g., irrigation) that may temper drought impacts or variable rates of water consumption across a landscape. This study assesses the value of a new drought index based on remote sensing of evapotranspiration (ET). The evaporative stress index (ESI) quantifies anomalies in the ratio of actual to potential ET (PET), mapped using thermal band imagery from geostationary satellites. The study investigates the behavior and response time scales of the ESI through a retrospective comparison with the standardized precipitation indices and Palmer drought index suite, and with drought classifications recorded in the U.S. Drought Monitor for the 2000–09 growing seasons. Spatial and temporal correlation analyses suggest that the ESI performs similarly to short-term (up to 6 months) precipitation-based indices but can be produced at higher spatial resolution and without requiring any precipitation data. Unique behavior is observed in the ESI in regions where the evaporative flux is enhanced by moisture sources decoupled from local rainfall: for example, in areas of intense irrigation or shallow water table. Normalization by PET serves to isolate the ET signal component responding to soil moisture variability from variations due to the radiation load. This study suggests that the ESI is a useful complement to the current suite of drought indicators, with particular added value in parts of the world where rainfall data are sparse or unreliable.