The sensitivity of the PDSI to the Thornthwaite and Penman-Monteith parameterizations for potential evapotranspiration

G. van der Schrier, P. D. Jones, K. R. Briffa

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

242 Citations (Scopus)


Potential evapotranspiration (PET) is one of the inputs to the Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI). A common approach to calculating PDSI is to use the Thornthwaite method for estimating PET because of its readily available input data: monthly mean temperatures. PET estimates based on Penman-type approaches are considered to be more physically realistic, but require more diverse input data. This study assesses the differences in global PDSI maps using the two estimates for PET. Annually accumulated PET estimates based on alternative Thornthwaite and Penman-Monteith, parameterizations have very different amplitudes. However, we show that PDSI values based on the two PET estimates are very similar, in terms of correlation, regional averages, trends, and in terms of identifying extremely dry or wet months. The reason for this insensitivity to the method of calculating PET relates to the calculations in the simple water balance model which is at the heart of the PDSI algorithm. It is shown that in many areas, actual evapotranspiration is limited by the availability of soil moisture and is at markedly lower levels compared to its potential value. In other areas, the water balance does change, but the quantity central to the calculation of the PDSI is, by construction, a reflection of the actual precipitation, which makes it largely insensitive to the use of the Thornthwaite PET rather than the Penman-Monteith PET. A secondary reason is that the impact of PET as input to a scaling parameter in the PDSI algorithm is very modest compared to the more dominant influence of the precipitation.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)D03106
JournalJGR - Atmospheres
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2011

Cite this