This dynamic process is best seen on the 500-millibar chart. This chart shows the circulation of the atmosphere at roughly 18,000 feet (5486 meters) and is based on soundings taken by weather balloon on a twice-daily basis. These soundings are then plotted on a map and the lines of equal pressure are connected. Ridges extend toward the pole, are usually associated with warm, dry weather, and have the general shape of an upside down "U" in the Northern Hemisphere. Troughs extend toward the equator, are usually associated with cool, wet weather, and have the general shape of a "U" in the Northern Hemisphere. The area of greatest surface instability (thunderstorms) is usually immediately ahead of (to the right of) the 500 mb trough.
The daily difference in temperature may be lower in areas where a single air mass remains dominant. This can happen under a stable circulation pattern (at the jet stream level) that locks an air mass in place--for example, a strong zonal flow, or a stable ridge/trough pattern. The daily difference in temperature will be higher in areas that experience a greater frequency of frontal passages as cold arctic air moves southward and warmer, maritime air moves northward. This will happen under a variable circulation pattern, or along a stable storm track.
To quantify the variability in daily temperature, the average daily differences in temperature for the current month have been expressed as a ratio of the normal (1961-90) average daily difference. The magnitude of this ratio is expressed by the intensity of the shading on the map. Green shading indicates that daily variability in temperature was less than normal and may be a consequence of a dominant air mass. Red shading indicates that daily temperature variability was greater than normal reflecting a more frequent passage of differing air masses.
The national temperature index expresses temperature departure from the 60-year mean in terms of standard deviations. Each year's value is computed by standardizing the temperature for each of 344 climate divisions in the U.S. by using their 1931-90 mean and standard deviation, then weighting these divisional values by area. These area-weighted values are then normalized over the period of record. Positive values indicate warmer than the mean and negative values indicate cooler than the mean.
Because the USHCN data set has been adjusted to account for biases due to factors such as instrument changes, station relocation, and urban heat island effects, we use the USHCN data when calculating the long-term temperature time series. However the USHCN data set is not updated in near-real-time. For purposes of monitoring most recent changes in climate, we use the near-real-time data from the divisional database and the first difference approach to extend the USHCN time series. Combining the most recent climate division data with the USHCN time series, we calculate a first difference value using the most recent two years of data (e.g., 2001 – 2000) from the divisional database. We then add this first difference value to the last year (e.g., 2000) in the USHCN time series to obtain the current year’s value (e.g., 2001).
* Peterson et al., 1998: 'The First Difference Method: Maximizing Station Density for the Calculation of Long-term Global Temperature Change', Journal of Geophysical Research
Common to all types of drought is the fact that they originate from a deficiency of precipitation resulting from an unusual weather pattern. If the weather pattern lasts a short time (say, a few weeks or a couple months), the drought is considered short-term. But if the weather or atmospheric circulation pattern becomes entrenched and the precipitation deficits last for several months to several years, the drought is considered to be a long-term drought. It is possible for a region to experience a long-term circulation pattern that produces drought, and to have short-term changes in this long-term pattern that result in short-term wet spells. Likewise, it is possible for a long-term wet circulation pattern to be interrupted by short-term weather spells that result in short-term drought.
The Palmer Z Index measures short-term drought on a monthly scale. The Palmer Crop Moisture Index (CMI) measures short-term drought on a weekly scale and is used to quantify drought's impacts on agriculture during the growing season.
The Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI) (known operationally as the Palmer Drought Index (PDI)) attempts to measure the duration and intensity of the long-term drought-inducing circulation patterns. Long-term drought is cumulative, so the intensity of drought during the current month is dependent on the current weather patterns plus the cumulative patterns of previous months. Since weather patterns can change almost literally overnight from a long-term drought pattern to a long-term wet pattern, the PDSI (PDI) can respond fairly rapidly.
The hydrological impacts of drought (e.g., reservoir levels, groundwater levels, etc.) take longer to develop and it takes longer to recover from them. The Palmer Hydrological Drought Index (PHDI), another long-term drought index, was developed to quantify these hydrological effects. The PHDI responds more slowly to changing conditions than the PDSI (PDI).
While Palmer's indices are water balance indices that consider water supply (precipitation), demand (evapotranspiration) and loss (runoff), the Standardized Precipitation Index (SPI) is a probability index that considers only precipitation. The SPI is an index based on the probability of recording a given amount of precipitation, and the probabilities are standardized so that an index of zero indicates the median precipitation amount (half of the historical precipitation amounts are below the median, and half are above the median). The index is negative for drought, and positive for wet conditions. As the dry or wet conditions become more severe, the index becomes more negative or positive. The SPI is computed by NCDC for several time scales, ranging from one month to 24 months, to capture the various scales of both short-term and long-term drought.