drought ground

NOAA funds effort to better predict droughts

Three-month, completely automated drought outlook being developed at Michigan State University.

Michigan State University scientist Lifeng Luo is leading a research project competitively funded by the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to create a better system for predicting droughts, a type of climate extreme that causes billions of dollars in direct losses to the U.S. economy every year.

Luo is developing a three-month, completely automated drought outlook that would be released weekly to the public. This outlook would give farmers, public officials and others more notice of potential droughts, including "flash droughts," such as the one that quickly gripped parts of the West this past summer.

NOAA’s current three-month seasonal outlook relies partly on human observation and judgment and is released once a month.

“That’s not frequent enough, especially when you consider flash droughts, which develop very quickly,” said Luo, associate professor in Michigan State’s department of geography, environment and spatial sciences. “The forecast needs to be more frequent and reliable.”

NOAA’s Modeling, Analysis, Predictions & Projections (MAPP) Program, in partnership with the National Integrated Drought Information System, is supporting the effort with a $293,796 grant that runs through June 2020. Luo’s co-investigator on the project is Youlong Xia, a research meteorologist with NOAA’s National Weather Service. As part of the project, the researchers will participate in NOAA’s MAPP Drought Task Force, working with other MAPP-funded scientists on related projects.

Luo and collaborators are already running an experimental system on a weekly basis. It is based on existing climate model forecasts, indicators and a drought-prediction system developed at Michigan State. Luo’s previous work in the area was also funded by NOAA.

Luo said if NOAA implements the fully developed drought outlook, it would be coordinated with the agency’s popular U.S. Drought Monitor, a weekly report of current drought conditions produced by NOAA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska.

On average, droughts cost an estimated $9 billion in damages every year in the U.S., according to NOAA. A single drought in 2012 that spread across the U.S. caused some $32 billion in damage nationwide, mostly due to widespread harvest failure.

While Luo doesn’t yet have reliable data on the accuracy of his system, he said he’s confident that it would be more effective in helping combat droughts.

“This project will help advance the drought prediction system and outlooks by NOAA,” Luo said. “It can help policy-makers and stakeholders be better prepared for droughts and increase their resilience to drought events.”

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