Short Droughts are Worst

The shorter the drought, the less rainfall there is in it. The longer the drought, the more rainfall. News reports give the false impression that hardly any rain falls during a drought, even if the drought lasts a long time. That is not true.

To prove the point, I have made graphs and a table showing the very worst droughts that Manilla ever had: the very worst short droughts, year-long droughts and 30-year droughts.

Lowest ever rainfalls

Graphs of the driest times

The first graph shows how the driest two month drought had only one millimetre of rain, while the driest longer periods had very much more, up to over 5000 mm of rain in 120 months (10 years). That may seem obvious. So long as there is a little rain in most months, the longer the period, the bigger the rainfall total. But there is more to it than that.

The second graph shows the average rate of rainfall during each worst drought: the rainfall per month. The rate is not steady as you might expect. It too becomes higher as longer droughts are measured. Through the worst two-month drought, only half a millimetre of rain fell per month. Through the worst 12-month drought no less than 24 mm fell per month. The worst 120-month drought had 47 mm per month on average. That is not far below the normal average monthly rainfall of 54.3 mm per month.

The third graph builds on this comparison. Each drought rainfall rate is shown as a percentage of the normal rainfall rate. While those worst droughts that were shorter than than five months had less than 10% of normal rainfall, no droughts that were longer than five months ever had so little. Droughts lasting for 12 months never had rainfall lower than 44% of normal. As for the decade-long droughts mentioned in the news, the driest decades in history had rainfall rates more than 85% of normal. Such record dry times are hard to see in rainfall figures, although they surely deplete surface and underground water storages.

[These graphs show clearly why droughts are not well defined by the percentage of normal rainfall. Percentile values are more satisfactory, but they too have problems.]

Manilla’s list of driest times

Table of lowest rainfallsThe table shows all the figures mentioned for each of the driest times on record in 134 years at Manilla.
Records can be broken, but it seldom happens. These records have stood for a very long time – at least the forty-six years since 1971.

Many of these record-setting droughts had dates of onset or breaking that were members of a rather small set. In particular, the year 1911 saw the onset of nearly half of them.


[This table was amended on 14/8/2018. The original table had two errors, now corrected.
1. The lowest 30-month total was not 1082 mm (36.1 mm/month; 66.5%) set March 1911 to August 1913. It was 1078 mm (35.9 mm/month; 66.2%) set May 1964 to October 1966.
2. There were not 14 rainless months, but 15. The month missed was April 1971.]

A new record set in 2018

The record for 15-month low rainfall of 404 mm, set in 1912, was broken when the 15 months to September 2018 reached only 400 mm.
See the post “Record 15-month Drought in 2018”.

There is a video interview on the topic here:

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