Development of a Coastal Drought Index Using Salinity Data

Tuesday, 16 December 2014
Paul Anthony Conrads, USGS South Carolina Water Science Center, Columbia, SC, United States and Lisa S Darby, NOAA, Boulder, CO, United States
The freshwater-saltwater interface in surface-water bodies along the coast is an important factor in the ecological and socio-economic dynamics of coastal communities. It influences community composition in freshwater and saltwater ecosystems, determines fisheries spawning habitat, and controls freshwater availability for municipal and industrial water intakes. These dynamics may be affected by coastal drought through changes in Vibrio bacteria impacts on shellfish harvesting and occurrence of wound infection, fish kills, harmful algal blooms, hypoxia, and beach closures.

There are many definitions of drought, with most describing a decline in precipitation having negative impacts on water supply and agriculture. Four general types of drought are recognized: hydrological, agricultural, meteorological, and socio-economic. Indices have been developed for these drought types incorporating data such as rainfall, streamflow, soil moisture, groundwater levels, and snow pack. These indices were developed for upland areas and may not be appropriate for characterizing drought in coastal areas. Because of the uniqueness of drought impacts on coastal ecosystems, a need exists to develop a coastal drought index. The availability of real-time and historical salinity datasets provides an opportunity to develop a salinity-based coastal drought index.

The challenge of characterizing salinity dynamics in response to drought is excluding responses attributable to occasional saltwater intrusion events. Our approach to develop a coastal drought index modified the Standardized Precipitation Index and applied it to sites in South Carolina and Georgia, USA. Coastal drought indices characterizing 1-, 3-, 6-, 9-, and12-month drought conditions were developed. Evaluation of the coastal drought index indicates that it can be used for different estuary types, for comparison between estuaries, and as an index for wet conditions (high freshwater inflow) in addition to drought conditions.