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Different Types of Drought

By Denise Valenzuela

Posted in

Research in the early 1980s uncovered more than 150 published definitions of drought. Below we provide an overview of the 4 main types of drought and how they impact us.  We categorized the definitions in terms of four basic approaches to measuring drought: meteorological, hydrological, agricultural, and socioeconomic. The first three approaches deal with ways to measure drought.. The last deals with drought in terms of supply and demand, tracking the effects of water shortfall in economies.

Meteorological Drought

Meteorological drought is defined usually on the basis of the degree of dryness and the duration of the dry period.

For example, some definitions of meteorological drought identify periods of drought on the basis of the number of days with precipitation less than some specified threshold.

Agricultural Drought

Agricultural drought links various characteristics of meteorological  drought to agricultural impacts, focusing on precipitation shortages, differences between actual and potential evapotranspiration, soil water deficits, reduced groundwater or reservoir levels, and so forth. Plant water demand depends on prevailing weather conditions, biological characteristics of the specific plant, its stage of growth, and the physical and biological properties of the soil. A good definition of agricultural drought should be able to account for the variable susceptibility of crops during different stages of crop development, from emergence to maturity. Deficient topsoil moisture at planting may hinder germination, leading to low plant populations per hectare and a reduction of final yield.

Hydrological Drought

Hydrological drought is associated with the effects of periods of precipitation (including snowfall) shortfalls on surface or subsurface water supply (i.e., streamflow, reservoir and lake levels, groundwater). The frequency and severity of hydrological drought is often defined on a watershed or river basin scale. Although all droughts originate with a deficiency of precipitation, hydrologists are more concerned with how this deficiency plays out through the hydrologic system. Hydrological droughts are usually out of phase with or lag the occurrence of meteorological and agricultural droughts. It takes longer for precipitation deficiencies to show up in components of the hydrological system such as soil moisture, streamflow, and groundwater and reservoir levels. As a result, these impacts are out of phase with impacts in other economic sectors. For example, a precipitation deficiency may result in a rapid depletion of soil moisture that is almost immediately discernible to agriculturalists, but the impact of this deficiency on reservoir levels may not affect hydroelectric power production or recreational uses for many months. Also, water in hydrologic storage systems (e.g., reservoirs, rivers) is often used for multiple and competing purposes (e.g., flood control, irrigation, recreation, navigation, hydropower, wildlife habitat), further complicating the sequence and quantification of impacts. Competition for water in these storage systems escalates during drought and conflicts between water users increase significantly.

Socioeconomic Drought

Socioeconomic definitions of drought associate the supply and demand of some economic good with elements of drought. The supply of many economic goods, such as water, forage, food grains, fish, and hydroelectric power, depends on weather. Because of the natural variability of climate, water supply is ample in some years but unable to meet human and environmental needs in other years. Socioeconomic drought occurs when the demand for an economic good exceeds supply as a result of a weather-related shortfall in water supply.