Flash Drought Indicator Intercomparison in the United States

Trent W. Ford, Jason A. Otkin, Steven M. Quiring, Joel Lisonbee, Molly Woloszyn, Junming Wang, Yafang Zhong

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Increased flash drought awareness in recent years has motivated the development of numerous indicators for monitoring, early warning, and assessment. The flash drought indicators can act as a complementary set of tools by which to inform flash drought response and management. However, the limitations of each indicator much be measured and communicated between research and practitioners to ensure effectiveness. The limitations of any flash drought indicator are better understood and overcome through assessment of indicator sensitivity and consistency; however, such assessment cannot assume any single indicator properly represents the flash drought “truth.” To better understand the current state of flash drought monitoring, this study presents an intercomparison of nine, widely used flash drought indicators. The indicators represent perspectives and processes that are known to drive flash drought, including evapotranspiration and evaporative demand, precipitation, and soil moisture. We find no single flash drought indicator consistently outperforms all others across the contiguous United States. We do find the evaporative demand-and evapotranspiration-driven indicators tend to lead precipitation-and soil moisture-based indicators in flash drought onset, but also tend to produce more flash drought events collectively. Overall, the regional and definition-specific variability in results supports the argument for a multi-indicator approach for flash drought monitoring, as advocated by recent studies. Furthermore, flash drought research}especially evaluation of historical and potential future changes in flash drought characteristics}should test multiple indicators, datasets, and methods for representing flash drought, and ideally employ a multi-indicator analysis framework over use of a single indicator from which to infer all flash drought information. SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT: Rapid onset or “flash” drought has been an increasing concern globally, with quickly intensifying impacts to agriculture, ecosystems, and water resources. Many tools and indicators have been developed to monitor and provide early warning for flash drought, ideally resulting in more time for effective mitigation and reduced impacts. However, there remains no widely accepted single method for defining, monitoring, and measuring flash drought, which means most indicators that are developed are compared with other individual indicators or conditions and impacts in one or two flash drought events. In this study, we measure the state of flash drought monitoring through an intercomparison of nine, widely used flash drought indicators that represent different aspects of flash drought. We find that no single flash drought indicator outperformed all others and suggest that a comprehensive flash drought monitor should leverage multiple, complementary indicators, datasets, and methods. Furthermore, we suggest flash drought research}especially that which reflects on historical or projected changes in flash drought characteristics}should seek multiple indicators, datasets, and methods for analyses, thereby reducing the potentially confounding effects of sensitivity to a single indicator.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1713-1730
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 2023
Externally publishedYes


  • Drought
  • Evapotranspiration
  • Precipitation
  • Soil moisture

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Atmospheric Science


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