Floods and droughts are driven, in part, by spatial patterns of extreme rainfall. Heat waves are driven by spatial patterns of extreme temperature. It is therefore of interest to design statistical methodologies that allow the rapid identification of likely patterns of extreme rain or temperature from observed historical data. The standard work-horse for the rapid identification of patterns of climate variability in historical data is Principal Component Analysis (PCA) and its variants. But PCA optimizes for variance not spatial extremes, and so there is no particular reason why the first PCA spatial pattern should identify, or even approximate, the types of patterns that may drive floods, droughts or heatwaves, even if the linear assumptions underlying PCA are correct. We present an alternative pattern identification algorithm that makes the same linear assumptions as PCA, but which can be used to explicitly optimize for spatial extremes. We call the method Directional Component Analysis (DCA), since it involves introducing a preferred direction, or metric, such as “sum of all points in the spatial field”. We compare the first PCA and DCA spatial patterns for U.S. and China winter and summer rainfall anomalies, using the sum metric for the definition of DCA in order to focus on total rainfall anomaly over the domain. In three out of four of the examples the first DCA spatial pattern is more uniform over a wide area than the first PCA spatial pattern and as a result is more obviously relevant to large-scale flooding or drought. Also, in all cases the definitions of PCA and DCA result in the first PCA spatial pattern having the larger explained variance of the two patterns, while the first DCA spatial pattern, when scaled appropriately, has a higher likelihood and greater total rainfall anomaly, and indeed is the pattern with the highest total rainfall anomaly for a given likelihood. The first DCA spatial pattern is arguably the best answer to the question: what single spatial pattern is most likely to drive large total rainfall anomalies in the future? It is also simpler to calculate than PCA. In combination PCA and DCA patterns yield more insight into rainfall variability and extremes than either pattern on its own.
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