Toward long-lead operational forecasts of drought: An experimental study in the Murray-Darling River Basin

Ana P. Barros, Gavin J. Bowden

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Resiliency and effectiveness in water resources management of drought is strongly depend on advanced knowledge of drought onset, duration and severity. The motivation of this work is to extend the lead time of operational drought forecasts. The research strategy is to explore the predictability of drought severity from space-time varying indices of large-scale climate phenomena relevant to regional hydrometeorology (e.g. ENSO) by integrating linear and non-linear statistical data models, specifically self-organizing maps (SOM) and multivariate linear regression analysis. The methodology is demonstrated through the step-by-step development of a model to forecast monthly spatial patterns of the standard precipitation index (SPI) within the Murray-Darling Basin (MDB) in Australia up to 12 months in advance. First, the rationale for the physical hypothesis and the exploratory data analysis including principal components, wavelet and partial mutual information analysis to identify and select predictor variables are presented. The focus is on spatial datasets of precipitation, sea surface temperature anomaly (SSTA) patterns over the Indian and Pacific Oceans, temporal and spatial gradients of outgoing longwave radiation (OLR) in the Pacific Ocean, and the far western Pacific wind-stress anomaly. Second, the process of model construction, calibration and evaluation is described. The experimental forecasts show that there is ample opportunity to increase the lead time of drought forecasts for decision support using parsimonious data models that capture the governing climate processes at regional scale. OLR gradients proved to be dispensable predictors, whereas SPI-based predictors appear to control predictability when the SSTA in the region [87.5°N-87.5°S; 27.5°E-67.5°W] and eastward wind-stress anomalies in the region [4°N-4°S; 130°E-160°E) are small, respectively, ±1° and ±0.01 dyne/cm2, that is when ENSO activity is weak. The areal averaged 12-month lead-time forecasts of SPI in the MDB explain up to 60% of the variance in the observations (r > 0.7). Based on a threshold SPI of -0.5 for severe drought at the regional scale and for a nominal 12-month lead time, the forecast of the timing of onset is within 0-2 months of the actual threshold being met by the observations, thus effectively a 10-month lead time forecast at a minimum. Spatial analysis suggests that forecast errors can be attributed in part to a mismatch between the spatial heterogeneity of rainfall and raingauge density in the observational network. Forecast uncertainty on the other hand appears associated with the number of redundant predictors used in the forecast model.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)349-367
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of Hydrology
Issue number3-4
StatePublished - Aug 15 2008
Externally publishedYes


  • Climate
  • Drought
  • Forecasting
  • Long-lead times

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Water Science and Technology


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