Drought Center creates drought tracking tool, expands USDA partnership

Cory Matteson | NDMC Communications

When drought develops somewhere across the country, news reports often chronicle its effects on that area. These reports can be vital resources in trying to understand the impact of drought in the U.S., said National Drought Mitigation Center assistant director Kelly Helm Smith.

The Drought Center has developed a mostly automated news search process for drought impacts, and is mapping and quantifying the results. The experimental Media Drought Index (MDI), now available to the public, may help detect emerging impacts, said Smith, who led its development.  

“People talk about the news as the rough draft of history,” said Smith, a former newspaper reporter. “So, this is why we use news to collect drought impacts. It has been the one source of drought impact information that is the most systematically curated over time since the Drought Center opened its doors in 1995. In 2005, we started adding them, by hand, to the Drought Impact Reporter. Now we have the Media Drought Index.”

Both the Media Drought Index and the Drought Impact Reporter are part of the Drought Impacts Toolkit (https://droughtimpacts.unl.edu), which has been developed with support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Integrated Drought Information System, and is included in the U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit.

Smith said that the MDI was created to help researchers, climatologists and the public in their efforts to track drought impacts and to see where drought-related news is being published at higher or lower rates than normal, based on 10 years of data collected via the Meltwater media tracking database. States each receive an MDI score that quantifies how many more news reports a state is generating than normal for that state and time of year. The map of state MDI levels is updated each Monday. As expected, states in red, signifying high levels of drought-related news, also tend to be experiencing prolonged or intense drought.  

Below the map are time series charts, showing the MDI and a statistical summary of the U.S. Drought Monitor over time, providing a comparison of attention to drought and drought conditions.  

In addition to quantifying news, the MDI dashboard lets users read it. Linked news reports dot the map according to where they were published.  

“It's a resource that can be helpful if you're thinking, ‘Oh, I wonder what's happening in this place,’” Smith said. “It's a map-based way to find the news, which is kind of interesting for place-to-place comparisons.”  

 Already, state climatologists have used the MDI to monitor impacts and provide relevant information about drought conditions to U.S. Drought Monitor authors, who consider on-the-ground reports as they create the weekly snapshot of drought across the country and its territories. The MDI is also a step toward creating a spatially continuous layer of drought impact data that is comparable to climate data, Smith said.

The Media Drought Index is now publicly available at go.unl.edu/droughtnews.

Drought Center, USDA expand existing partnership with latest one-year cooperative agreement

Since the National Drought Mitigation Center’s founding in 1995, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been one of the center’s main supporters and collaborators.

At the end of 2020, the Drought Center and USDA launched a three-year, $2.4 million cooperative agreement. It will support the NDMC as it continues to help produce and enhance the U.S. Drought Monitor, the weekly snapshot of drought that NDMC, USDA and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists work together to create.

This fall, the NDMC agreed to an additional one-year, $1.275 million cooperative agreement with the USDA’s Office of the Chief Economist (OCE) that will address drought monitoring and much more through a series of projects. NDMC director Mark Svoboda lauded the effort between the center and the OCE as a means of continuing to grow the NDMC’s support and services to not only the OCE, but many other agencies within USDA as well.

NDMC climatologist Brian Fuchs said that the agreements include projects proposed by the NDMC staff that not only address key issues in the realm of physical sciences, but also examine social and economic facets of drought as well. Several of the projects also focus on making drought science more accessible to underserved populations, Fuchs said.

“I like that these projects show that we are spreading our wings a little bit in some new areas of drought-related research and resource development,” Fuchs said. “These are areas where we have expertise too. We are working on projects that involve physical sciences but also social sciences and economics. At the core of each of these projects is an effort to enhance or develop new ways to relay key information about drought to people who need it. Droughts are billion-dollar disasters that can affect the livelihoods of anyone who lives in an area that is experiencing one, as we are seeing both in the Western U.S. and Northern Plains this year. ”

Seventeen total projects were proposed for 2021-22 and will build upon past efforts with USDA and the USDA Climate Hubs. They include:

Enhanced drought monitoring and resilience targeted to agricultural producers. Based on recent requests from agricultural producers, the NDMC is developing an agricultural drought section for the U.S. Drought Monitor website (droughtmonitor.unl.edu) to help direct decision-makers to resources that can help them prepare for drought, better manage their land during drought and find out if they qualify for USDA resources that help producers recover from drought. The project is an extension of several recent efforts that the NDMC has led to help ag producers, like the Managing Drought on the Ranch Toolkit.

Enhancing composite drought indices to better detect drought across seasonal timeframes and regional zones. Composite blend tools are resources that factor in combinations of differently weighted drought indices on short- and long-term timescales to help people better be aware of potential immediate issues, like wildfire concerns or range and pasture dryness, or drought-related impacts that could go on for months or years, like low reservoir or groundwater levels. The long-term and short-term objective blends are experimental tools, and NDMC’s team of climatologists continues to explore how combinations of different drought indices most accurately prepare people for future events, and how indices like precipitation totals, soil moisture, streamflow and more should be weighted differently in different regions of the U.S. to best detect early warning signs of drought.

Exploring the economics of groundwater management, and how that influences the price and availability of water during drought events. In tandem with the Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Department of Agricultural Economics, the NDMC team is examining water markets in Nebraska and elsewhere to learn how droughts do and don’t influence the price of water. Research has already been published as part of this project, but there is much more to come after additional, sizeable datasets are analyzed by the team.  

Enhancement and expansion of the Visual Drought Atlas. The VDA, which currently collects and presents landscape photos submitted by citizen scientists and others across the U.S. and its territories, will incorporate more photo databases into its production. That could include troves of historic USDA images and even data from phenocams, which capture time-lapse images of foliage.

Continue work on drought resilience in underserved areas. The one-year agreement includes projects that will refine drought metrics and indicators in Alaska, as well as examine drought impacts on agriculture there. A Hawaiian drought workshop that was delayed due to the coronavirus has been tentatively rescheduled, and will bring together officials from Hawaii and the U.S.-affiliated Pacific Islands with U.S. Drought Monitor authors to share information about how drought affects the island state and territories, and how to continue to improve drought monitoring there.  

The Media Drought Index was created to help researchers, climatologists and the public in their efforts to track drought impacts and to see where drought-related news is being published at higher or lower rates than normal.
Since the National Drought Mitigation Center’s founding in 1995, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been one of the center’s main supporters and collaborators. The NDMC and USDA recently entered into a cooperative agreement that will provide support for numerous projects, including enhanced drought monitoring and resilience targeted to agricultural producers. Photo by USDA National Resources Conservation Services, Montana