Flash droughts present a new challenge for subseasonal-to-seasonal prediction


Flash droughts are a recently recognized type of extreme event distinguished by sudden onset and rapid intensification of drought conditions with severe impacts. They unfold on subseasonal-to-seasonal timescales (weeks to months), presenting a new challenge for the surge of interest in improving subseasonal-to-seasonal prediction. Here we discuss existing prediction capability for flash droughts and what is needed to establish their predictability. We place them in the context of synoptic to centennial phenomena, consider how they could be incorporated into early warning systems and risk management, and propose two definitions. The growing awareness that flash droughts involve particular processes and severe impacts, and probably a climate change dimension, makes them a compelling frontier for research, monitoring and prediction.

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Fig. 1: Evolution of a flash drought across the US Midwest in 2012.
Fig. 2: US Northern Great Plains flash drought in May 2017.
Fig. 3: The response of evaporative demand and evapotranspiration to feedbacks from drying land.
Fig. 4: Frequency of different drought intensification rates.

Data availability

EDDI is available for the CONUS at ftp://ftp.cdc.noaa.gov/Projects/EDDI/CONUS_archive and for the globe at ftp://ftp.cdc.noaa.gov/Projects/EDDI/global_archive. Figure 1i is generated from the USDM (droughtmonitor.unl.edu). The data analysed in Figs. 2 and 4 are available from ftp://ftp.cdc.noaa.gov/pub/Public/jeischeid/andy/. The data to generate Fig. 4 are available at github.com/apendergrass/flashdroughtperspectivefigure.

Code availability

Figure 1i is generated from the USDM (droughtmonitor.unl.edu). Figures 2 and 4 were generated following the protocol The code to generate Fig. 4 is available at github.com/apendergrass/flashdroughtperspectivefigure.


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The perspectives in this manuscript emerged from an Aspen Global Change Institute (AGCI) workshop in September 2018; we thank all participants (https://www.agci.org/event/18s4). This material is based on work supported by the National Center for Atmospheric Research, which is a major facility sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) under Cooperative Agreement no. 1947282. Portions of this study were supported by the Regional and Global Model Analysis (RGMA) component of the Earth and Environmental System Modeling Program of the US Department of Energy’s Office of Biological & Environmental Research (BER) via NSF IA 1844590. M.H. was supported by a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Joint Technology Transfer Initiative (JTTI) award and a US Agency for International Development (USAID)–Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) award (NA17OAR4320101). C.J.W.B. was supported by an Early-Mid Career LLNL Laboratory Directed Research and Development award (tracking code 17-ERD-115) under the auspices of the US Department of Energy by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory under contract DE-AC52-07NA27344. A.J.E.G is supported by Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Researcher Award DE150101297. M.C.W. was partially supported by the Northern Australia Climate Program (NACP), funded by Meat and Livestock Australia, the Queensland Government and the University of Southern Queensland. F.L. is also supported by NSF AGS-0856145 Amendment 87 and by the Bureau of Reclamation under Cooperative Agreement R16AC00039. The US Drought Monitor is jointly produced by the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the United States Department of Agriculture, and NOAA. Map (Fig. 1i) courtesy of NDMC. Opinions expressed by D.L. represent professional opinions of the co-author, not official positions of the government.

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A.G.P., G.A.M. and R.P. coordinated the text and organized the workshop. M.H. and A.H. provided figures. All authors except A.A. participated in discussions at the workshop, and all authors contributed to the writing.

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Correspondence to Angeline G. Pendergrass.

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Pendergrass, A.G., Meehl, G.A., Pulwarty, R. et al. Flash droughts present a new challenge for subseasonal-to-seasonal prediction. Nat. Clim. Chang. 10, 191–199 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-020-0709-0

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