Odds of Reaching 100% of Normal Precipitation for Water Year 2018 (May Update)

May 2, 2018

Contribution from Dr. M.D. Dettinger, USGS

Here is how we usually tend to see the water-year precip-drought to-date or last month’s contributions represented:

Figure 1: Total precipitation anomaly (large map) and total precipitation (smaller map) during water 2018 (September 2017-April 2018). Images courtesy PRISM Climate Group.

A somewhat different viewpoint on the development of drought considers how much precipitation has fallen (or not) AND how much is likely to fall in coming months, based on climatology. April 2018 produced precipitation over much of northern California and improved odds of reaching normal in some locales, but overall did little to undo the deficits of the previous months in a majority of the state. The following are maps of this year’s drought development that explicitly takes both of these aspects into account.

Here is how the drought has evolved so far this water year in terms of the odds of reaching 100% of normal precipitation by end of water-year 2018.

Figure 2: Odds of reaching 100% of water-year normal precipitation totals throughout water-year 2018.

  • Drought conditions have continued to develop across the Southwest, as odds of reaching normal have progressively dwindled month by month. Although April was wet over parts of northern California, it was—arguably—too little too late to set us up for reaching 100% of normal this year, in all but a few locales.

Figure 3 shows the current odds of reaching various fractions (including but not limited to 100%) of water-year-total this year (top row), as well as the corresponding odds prior to April (bottom row).
This approach offers a far different view than the precipitation anomalies of figure 1, emphasizing different “hot spots” of hope & despair.

Figure 3: Odds of water-year 2018 reaching various fractions of water year normal precipitation totals based on water year precipitation through April (top row) and prior to April (bottom row).

Finally, figure 4 is the “flipped” version of the analysis, asking-at each pixel-how large a water-year total precipitation has a 50% (and other exceedances) chance of being equaled or exceeded this year, as of May 1, 2018.

Figure 4: Chance of water-year total precipitation being equaled or exceeded this year.

  • A different color bar is used here to emphasize that the shades now are illustrating something quite different from the previous maps

How the probabilities above were estimated:
At the end of a given month, if we know how much precipitation has fallen to date (in the water year), the amount of precipitation that will be required to close out the water year (on Sept 30) with a water-year total equal to the long-term normal is just that normal amount minus the amount received to date. Thus the odds of reaching normal by the end of the water year are just the odds of precipitation during the remaining of the year equaling or exceeding that remaining amount.

To arrive at the probabilities shown, the precipitation totals for the remaining months of the water year were tabulated in the long-term historical record (WY1948-2017 in these figures) and the number of years in which that precipitation total equaled or exceeded the amount still needed to reach normal were counted. The fraction of years that at least reached that threshold is the probability estimate. The calculation was also made for the probabilities of reaching 75% of normal by end of water year, 125%, etc., for these figures.

[One key simplifying assumption goes into estimating the probabilities this way: The assumption that the amount of precipitation that will fall in the remainder of a water year does not depend on the amount that has already fallen in that water year to date. This assumption was tested (across all climate divisions in California, so far) for each month of the year by correlating historical year-to-date amounts with the remainder-of-the-year amounts, and the resulting correlations were never statistically significantly different from zero.]

Contact: Michael Dettinger (USGS)