Streamflow drought: Implication of drought definitions and its application for drought forecasting

Samuel J. Sutanto*, Henny A.J. Van Lanen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

15 Citations (Scopus)


Streamflow drought forecasting is a key element of contemporary drought early warning systems (DEWS). The term streamflow drought forecasting (not streamflow forecasting), however, has created confusion within the scientific hydrometeorological community as well as in operational weather and water management services. Streamflow drought forecasting requires an additional step, which is the application of a drought identification method to the forecasted streamflow time series. The way streamflow drought is identified is the main reason for this misperception. The purpose of this study, therefore, is to provide a comprehensive overview of the differences between different drought identification approaches to identify droughts in European rivers, including an analysis of both historical drought and implications for forecasting. Streamflow data were obtained from the LISFLOOD hydrological model forced with gridded meteorological observations (known as LISFLOOD-Simulation Forced with Observed, SFO). The same model fed with seasonal meteorological forecasts of the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts system 5 (ECMWF SEAS 5) was used to obtain the forecasted streamflow. Streamflow droughts were analyzed using the daily and monthly variable threshold methods (VTD and VTM, respectively), the daily and monthly fixed threshold methods (FTD and FTM, respectively), and the Standardized Streamflow Index (SSI). Our results clearly show that streamflow droughts derived from different approaches deviate from each other in their characteristics, which also vary in different climate regions across Europe. The daily threshold methods (FTD and VTD) identify 25ĝ%-50ĝ% more drought events than the monthly threshold methods (FTM and VTM), and accordingly the average drought duration is longer for the monthly than for the daily threshold methods. The FTD and FTM, in general, identify drought occurrences earlier in the year than the VTD and VTM. In addition, the droughts obtained with the VTM and FTM approaches also have higher drought deficit volumes (about 25ĝ%-30ĝ%) than the VTD and FTD approaches. Overall, the characteristics of SSI-1 drought are close to what is being identified by the VTM. The different outcome obtained with the drought identification methods illustrated with the historical analysis is also found in drought forecasting, as documented for the 2003 drought across Europe and for the Rhine River specifically. In the end, there is no unique hydrological drought definition (identification method) that fits all purposes, and hence developers of DEWS and end-users should clearly agree in the co-design phase upon a sharp definition of which type of streamflow drought is required to be forecasted for a specific application.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3991-4023
Number of pages33
JournalHydrology and Earth System Sciences
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - 8 Jul 2021


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