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Drought Monitor integrative program for predicting drought conditions

Written by Emilee Gibb

“Drought is a tricky thing to talk about,” said National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration (NOAA) Program Assistant Program Director Chad McNutt. “If we’re an irrigator, drought is going to affect us differently than someone who is running dryland.”

McNutt discussed tools and resources available to producers for predicting drought conditions on their operation.

Outlooks

NOAA releases seasonal outlooks, both monthly and quarterly.

The outlooks give predictions for whether temperatures and precipitation will be above or below average.

“That doesn’t tell us magnitude. It just tells us the odds of either going above average or below average,” McNutt explained. “Nonetheless, these are what we use.”

McNutt noted that NOAA also releases a weekly Drought Monitor, which is combined with the seasonal outlooks to create drought outlooks.

“This is state-of-the-art when it comes to drought forecasting, and this is what we have to work with,” he said.

The different colors in the drought outlook predicts where drought development is likely, where it will likely persist and what areas may see improvement.

“In the brown are areas where we expect drought to persist, and the green colors are where we think drought development is likely. If we go to those lighter shades, that’s where we think improvement is going to happen,” McNutt continued.

Limitations

“Unfortunately, we live in an area of the country that doesn’t have a very strong signal with El Niño or La Niña,” said McNutt.

He noted that neither the 2011 flood or 2012 drought were predicted, even with a La Niña both years.

“In fact, there was some research done following those episodes on the forecast specifically, and they said, with the methodology and skill that we have with the latest science, we couldn’t have predicted either event,” McNutt continued.

He cautioned, “Even though we have these tools, like drought outlooks and seasonal outlooks, we really have to be careful how we use them.”

However, McNutt explained that the outlooks can still be useful to look at forecasts.

“I would look at shorter-term forecasts, rather than so much over the season, and then I would understand what current conditions look like on my operation,” he said.

Ground truth

“One of the interesting things about the Drought Monitor is it’s not a model,” commented McNutt.

While the seasonal outlooks are a model process, the Drought Monitor uses comprehensive sources for input.

“It takes into account a lot of data, but it also takes in a lot of user feedback from each state,” he continued. “One of the best things about this product is they look at a lot of variables, but they’re ground-truthing it with people on the ground.”

Each week, McNutt explained that there is a listserv where participants discuss what conditions look like in their area and provide input on how accurate the data is in describing the actual conditions.

He noted, “It’s kind of a convergence-of-evidence-type of approach where we have all of these variables, and then we’ve got people writing in, saying the variables we’re tracking aren’t showing drought or drought is worse than we’re depicting.”

Monitor basics

While used as a research tool for many years, the Drought Monitor first began being formally used in drought predictions in 1999.

“There was a drought in Washington, D.C. in 1998-99, and they said told researchers to get the system operational as quickly as possible,” McNutt commented.

The composite Drought Monitor map is released every Thursday morning, explained McNutt.

“We call it a composite map because it takes into account a lot of different indicators,” he said.

Both federal agencies and nonfederal participants, such as the National Weather Service, Farm Service Agency and Extension, contribute to the monitor.

One author per week works to compile all of the data and user input into the coming week’s map.

“They’re looking at the current week’s map, and they’re making adjustments based on where it’s rained or snowed, what shrink flows look like or what soil moisture looks like, what groundwater looks like,” concluded McNutt. “They actually produce the map, taking input from all over.”

McNutt spoke during the 2017 Fremont County Farm and Ranch Days.

Emilee Gibb is editor of Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..