Thursday, May 26, 2016

National Drought Mitigation Center

Comparison of Major Drought Indices: Palmer Drought Severity Index

Overview: The Palmer is a soil moisture algorithm calibrated for relatively homogeneous regions.

Who uses it: Many U.S. government agencies and states rely on the Palmer to trigger drought relief programs.

Pros: The first comprehensive drought index developed in the United States.

Cons: Palmer values may lag emerging droughts by several months; less well suited for mountainous land or areas of frequent climatic extremes; complex—has an unspecified, built-in time scale that can be misleading.

Developed by: W.C. Palmer, 1965.

Weekly maps: from the Climate Prediction Center

Palmer Classifications

4.0 or more

extremely wet

3.0 to 3.99

very wet

2.0 to 2.99

moderately wet

1.0 to 1.99

slightly wet

0.5 to 0.99

incipient wet spell

0.49 to -0.49

near normal

-0.5 to -0.99

incipient dry spell

-1.0 to -1.99

mild drought

-2.0 to -2.99

moderate drought

-3.0 to -3.99

severe drought

-4.0 or less

extreme drought

 In 1965, W.C. Palmer developed an index to measure the departure of the moisture supply (Palmer, 1965). Palmer based his index on the supply-and-demand concept of the water balance equation, taking into account more than just the precipitation deficit at specific locations. The objective of the Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI), as this index is now called, was to provide measurements of moisture conditions that were standardized so that comparisons using the index could be made between locations and between months (Palmer 1965).

The PDSI is a meteorological drought index, and it responds to weather conditions that have been abnormally dry or abnormally wet. When conditions change from dry to normal or wet, for example, the drought measured by the PDSI ends without taking into account streamflow, lake and reservoir levels, and other longer-term hydrologic impacts (Karl and Knight, 1985). The PDSI is calculated based on precipitation and temperature data, as well as the local Available Water Content (AWC) of the soil. From the inputs, all the basic terms of the water balance equation can be determined, including evapotranspiration, soil recharge, runoff, and moisture loss from the surface layer. Human impacts on the water balance, such as irrigation, are not considered. Complete descriptions of the equations can be found in the original study by Palmer (1965) and in the more recent analysis by Alley (1984).

Palmer developed the PDSI to include the duration of a drought (or wet spell). His motivation was as follows: an abnormally wet month in the middle of a long-term drought should not have a major impact on the index, or a series of months with near-normal precipitation following a serious drought does not mean that the drought is over. Therefore, Palmer developed criteria for determining when a drought or a wet spell begins and ends, which adjust the PDSI accordingly. Palmer (1965) described this effort and gave examples, and it is also described in detail by Alley (1984). In near-real time, Palmer’s index is no longer a meteorological index but becomes a hydrological index referred to as the Palmer Hydrological Drought Index (PHDI) because it is based on moisture inflow (precipitation), outflow, and storage, and does not take into account the long-term trend (Karl and Knight, 1985).

In 1989, a modified method to compute the PDSI was begun operationally (Heddinghaus and Sabol, 1991). This modified PDSI differs from the PDSI during transition periods between dry and wet spells. Because of the similarities between these Palmer indices, the terms Palmer Index and Palmer Drought Index have been used to describe general characteristics of the indices.

The Palmer Index varies roughly between -6.0 and +6.0. Palmer arbitrarily selected the classification scale of moisture conditions based on his original study areas in central Iowa and western Kansas (Palmer, 1965). Ideally, the Palmer Index is designed so that a -4.0 in South Carolina has the same meaning in terms of the moisture departure from a climatological normal as a -4.0 in Idaho (Alley, 1984). The Palmer Index has typically been calculated on a monthly basis, and a long-term archive of the monthly PDSI values for every climate division in the United States exists with the National Climatic Data Center from 1895 through the present. In addition, weekly Palmer Index values (actually modified PDSI values) are calculated for the climate divisions during every growing season and are available in the Weekly Weather and Crop Bulletin. These weekly Palmer Index maps are also available on the World Wide Web from the Climate Prediction Center.

The Palmer Index is popular and has been widely used for a variety of applications across the United States. It is most effective measuring impacts sensitive to soil moisture conditions, such as agriculture (Willeke et al., 1994). It has also been useful as a drought monitoring tool and has been used to trigger actions associated with drought contingency plans (Willeke et al., 1994). Alley (1984) identified three positive characteristics of the Palmer Index that contribute to its popularity: (1) it provides decision makers with a measurement of the abnormality of recent weather for a region; (2) it provides an opportunity to place current conditions in historical perspective; and (3) it provides spatial and temporal representations of historical droughts. Several states, including New York, Colorado, Idaho, and Utah, use the Palmer Index as one part of their drought monitoring systems.

There are considerable limitations when using the Palmer Index, and these are described in detail by Alley (1984) and Karl and Knight (1985). Drawbacks of the Palmer Index include:

  • The values quantifying the intensity of drought and signaling the beginning and end of a drought or wet spell were arbitrarily selected based on Palmer’s study of central Iowa and western Kansas and have little scientific meaning.
  • The Palmer Index is sensitive to the AWC of a soil type. Thus, applying the index for a climate division may be too general.
  • The two soil layers within the water balance computations are simplified and may not be accurately representative of a location.
  • Snowfall, snow cover, and frozen ground are not included in the index. All precipitation is treated as rain, so that the timing of PDSI or PHDI values may be inaccurate in the winter and spring months in regions where snow occurs.
  • The natural lag between when precipitation falls and the resulting runoff is not considered. In addition, no runoff is allowed to take place in the model until the water capacity of the surface and subsurface soil layers is full, leading to an underestimation of runoff.
  • Potential evapotranspiration is estimated using the Thornthwaite method. This technique has wide acceptance, but it is still only an approximation.

Several other researchers have presented additional limitations of the Palmer Index. McKee et al. (1995) suggested that the PDSI is designed for agriculture but does not accurately represent the hydrological impacts resulting from longer droughts. Also, the Palmer Index is applied within the United States but has little acceptance elsewhere (Kogan, 1995). One explanation for this is provided by Smith et al. (1993), who suggested that it does not do well in regions where there are extremes in the variability of rainfall or runoff. Examples in Australia and South Africa were given. Another weakness in the Palmer Index is that the “extreme” and “severe” classifications of drought occur with a greater frequency in some parts of the country than in others (Willeke et al., 1994). “Extreme” droughts in the Great Plains occur with a frequency greater than 10%. This limits the accuracy of comparing the intensity of droughts between two regions and makes planning response actions based on a certain intensity more difficult.

Back to the Standardized Precipitation Index | On to the Crop Moisture Index


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