This indicator tracks the frequency of heavy precipitation events in the United States.
Heavy precipitation events can be measured by tracking their frequency, examining their return period (the chance that the event will be equaled or exceeded in a given year), or directly measuring the amount of precipitation in a certain period (for example, inches of rain falling in a 24-hour period).
One way to track heavy precipitation is by calculating what percentage of a particular location’s total precipitation in a given year has come in the form of extreme one-day events—or, in other words, what percentage of precipitation is arriving in short, intense bursts. Figure 1 of this indicator looks at the prevalence of extreme single-day precipitation events over time.
For added insight, this indicator also tracks the occurrence of unusually high total yearly precipitation. It does so by looking at the Standardized Precipitation Index (SPI), which compares actual yearly precipitation totals with the range of precipitation totals that one would typically expect at a specific location, based on historical data. If a location experiences less precipitation than normal during a particular period, it will receive a negative SPI score, while a period with more precipitation than normal will receive a positive score. The more precipitation (compared with normal), the higher the SPI score. The SPI is a useful way to look at precipitation totals because it allows comparison of different locations and different seasons on a standard scale. Figure 2 shows what percentage of the total area of the contiguous 48 states had an annual SPI score of 2.0 or above (well above normal) in any given year.