The identification of cycles in periodic signals is a ubiquitous problem in time series analysis. Many real-world datasets only record a signal as a series of discrete events or symbols. In some cases, only a sequence of (non-equidistant) times can be assessed. Many of these signals are furthermore corrupted by noise and offer a limited number of samples, e.g., cardiac signals, astronomical light curves, stock market data, or extreme weather events. We propose a novel method that provides a power spectral estimate for discrete data. The edit distance is a distance measure that allows us to quantify similarities between non-equidistant event sequences of unequal lengths. However, its potential to quantify the frequency content of discrete signals has so far remained unexplored. We define a measure of serial dependence based on the edit distance, which can be transformed into a power spectral estimate (EDSPEC), analogous to the Wiener–Khinchin theorem for continuous signals. The proposed method is applied to a variety of discrete paradigmatic signals representing random, correlated, chaotic, and periodic occurrences of events. It is effective at detecting periodic cycles even in the presence of noise and for short event series. Finally, we apply the EDSPEC method to a novel catalog of European atmospheric rivers (ARs). ARs are narrow filaments of extensive water vapor transport in the lower troposphere and can cause hazardous extreme precipitation events. Using the EDSPEC method, we conduct the first spectral analysis of European ARs, uncovering seasonal and multi-annual cycles along different spatial domains. The proposed method opens new research avenues in studying of periodic discrete signals in complex real-world systems.

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