Droughts are one of the normal and recurrent climatic phenomena on Earth. However, recurring prolonged droughts have caused far-reaching and diverse impacts because of water deficits. This study aims to investigate the hydrological droughts of the Yellow River in northern China. Since drought duration and drought severity exhibit significant correlation, a bivariate distribution is used to model the drought duration and severity jointly. However, drought duration and drought severity are often modelled by different distributions; the commonly used bivariate distributions cannot be applied. In this study, a copula is employed to construct the bivariate drought distribution. The copula is a function that links the univariate marginal distributions to form the bivariate distribution. The bivariate return periods are also established to explore the drought characteristics of the historically noticeable droughts. The results show that the return period of the drought that occurred in late 1920s to early 1930s is 105 years. The significant 1997 dry-up phenomenon that occurred in the downstream Yellow River (resulting from the 1997–1998 drought) only has a return period of 4·4 years and is probably induced by two successive droughts and deteriorated by other factors, such as human activities.