Influence of Precipitation Changes on the SPI and Related Drought Severity. An Analysis Using Long-Term Data Series

Paulo A, Martins D, Pereira LS
Water Resour Manage (2016) 30:5737–5757 DOI 10.1007/s11269-016-1388-5

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Drought indices, such as the Standardized Precipitation Index (SPI) are used to quantify drought severity. Due to the SPI probabilistic and standardized nature, a given value of SPI computed in distinct time periods or locations indicates the same relative drought severity but corresponds to different amounts of precipitation. Thus, the present study aims at contributing for a comprehensive analysis of the influence of long-term precipitation variability on drought assessment by the SPI. Long records of monthly precipitation, spanning from 1863 to 2007 in several locations across Portugal, were divided into 30 years sub-periods and the SPI with 12-month time scale (SPI-12) was computed for each sub-period and for the entire period of records. The probability distributions adjusted to precipitation in those different time periods were compared envisaging to detect the SPI sensitivity to the reference period and, therefore, to changes in precipitation. Precipitation thresholds relative to the upper limits of SPI-12 drought categories were obtained and the influence of the time period was investigated. Results have shown that when SPI values derived from the full data record for a recent time period are lower/higher than the SPI values derived from data of the considered time period a recent downward/upward shift of precipitation has occurred. Coherently, a common pattern of drought aggravation from the initial until the more recent period was not detected. However, in southern locations, lower precipitation thresholds of the SPI drought categories were generally found in the more recent period, particularly for more severe drought categories, whereas in the northern locations Porto and Montalegre, an increase was detected. The impacts of the reference period on the computed SPI drought severity and frequency are shown, bringing to discussion the need for updating ´normal´ conditions when long term precipitation records are available and precipitation changes are observed.