Evaluating Drought Indices for Alaska

Drought is a recurrent natural phenomenon, but there is concern that climate change may increase the frequency or severity of drought in Alaska. Because most common drought indices were designed for lower latitudes, it is unclear how effectively they characterize drought in Alaska’s diverse high-latitude climates. Here, we compare three commonly used meteorological drought indices (the standardized precipitation index (SPI), the standardized precipitation evapotranspiration index (SPEI), and the self-calibrating Palmer drought severity index (scPDSI) to each other and to streamflow across Alaska’s 13 climate divisions. All of the drought indices identify major droughts, but the severity of the drought varies depending on the index used. The SPI and the SPEI are more flexible and often better correlated with streamflow than the scPDSI, and we recommend using them. Although SPI and SPEI are very similar in energy-limited climates, the drought metrics do diverge in drier locations in recent years, and considering the impact of temperature on drought may grow more important in the coming decades. Hargreaves PET estimates appeared more physically realistic than the more commonly used Thornthwaite equation and are equally easy to calculate, so we suggest using the Hargreaves equation when PET is estimated from temperature. This study, one of the first to evaluate drought indices for high-latitude regions, has the potential to improve drought monitoring and representation within the United States Drought Monitor, leading to more informed decision-making during drought in Alaska, and it improves our ability to track changes in drought driven by rising temperatures.


Joshua M. Walston, Stephanie A. McAfee, and Daniel J. McEvoy. 2023. Evaluating Drought Indices for Alaska. Earth Interactions. 1-43. https://doi.org/10.1175/EI-D-22-0025.1. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1175/EI-D-22-0025.1.