In the most recent days and weeks when stories of floods and hurricanes have dominated the news, it might be easy to miss that 44% of the country is experiencing drought conditions. I am not a meteorologist—just an agricultural scientist obsessed with the weather—so I often wonder what happens in the weather room when there is a severe event, like a hurricane or tornado. Is it total chaos? Flashing lights and buzzing alarms? What about severe climate events that last longer than a few hours, such as drought?
It turns out there is an entire center dedicated to studying drought, the National Drought Mitigation Center (NDMC) in Lincoln, Nebraska, established in 1995 to “help people and institutions develop and implement measures to reduce societal vulnerability to drought.” I spoke with Michael Hayes, outgoing NDMC Director and faculty member in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln School of Natural Resources, and Tonya Haigh, Research Specialist, to get answers to some of my burning questions.
Drought is a lot more complicated than other severe weather events, because in general, people deal better with urgent problems that feel more imminent. Even if the threat is not looming, drought experts recommend planning proactively for what might occur (something that we’ve called for also in the agriculture and water sectors).
Q: What actually happens in your office when there is a severe drought? Is it like my vision of a crazy weather room?
Michael Hayes: (after chuckling a little at the question) The short answer is no. But it has been suggested that we establish a “drought situation room”, where you could see an up to the minute map with drought regions flashing in red!
People refer to drought as a creeping phenomenon, because it creeps up on everyone, including public officials, catching some unaware.
Tornado chasing is something you hear a lot about so I often refer to “drought chasing.” In the undergraduate course that I teach at the University of Nebraska, I share pictures of myself in a field or a river “chasing drought.” I also have a photo that I share of a F4 tornado that occurred in the state in 2011 during a D4 (exceptional drought). Most people don’t notice the dry grass in the photo because they’re busy looking at the funnel cloud.
That’s the difference between rapid onset disasters that get a lot of attention versus drought, which tends to get less attention unless there is an imminent water threat or there are wildfires burning.
Q: How do you define drought?
MH: I define drought depending on the location you’re concerned about, and then what really matters is where the water comes from and how it is being used. Two neighboring farms could have completely different definitions of drought, if for example one farm uses irrigation and the other does not, or if one raises livestock and the other only crops, or even if the irrigation water comes from surface or groundwater.
There also tend to be different disciplinary perspectives on drought. Meteorological drought is based on departure of rainfall below what is expected. Agricultural drought relates to crops and water use. Hydrologists and environmental scientists have their own perspectives, as well.
There is not a uniform definition. Some of the other hazards have obvious visuals or scientific standards. This is one of the challenges we face communicating drought outside of the drought community. This also makes it difficult for public officials because there is not one standard definition that consistently triggers a response.
Q: I first learned about NDMC’s work during the 2012 drought, a historic drought particularly affecting the Midwest, and remember seeing the Drought Monitor all over the news. Can you talk a little about the Drought Monitor as a drought monitoring “product” and how it is utilized by different stakeholders?
MH: The Drought Monitor is a weekly product put together through collaboration of the NDMC, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). There is an extensive network that help provide feedback and in total, about 370 people that contribute. The Drought Monitor considers rainfall, hydrology, vegetation conditions, soil moisture; so really, all of the aspects of the water cycle. It’s a great communication tool.
Tonya Haigh: The Drought Monitor is a great example of how scientific information can trigger action. It is used by USDA to approximate the magnitude of impacts experienced by agricultural producers. It also informs the USDA crop outlooks, and from those reports the economic markets may follow. In that way, the Drought Monitor can have a big impact on farmers. I’ve found it very interesting that agricultural producers are looking at the Drought Monitor week to week. Farmers often want to see how it might change after a particularly hot or dry week. Note: the Drought Monitor includes information at a state and regional level.
Q: What is the number one most important thing you can recommend for drought preparation: from the perspective of farmers/ranchers, water resource managers, or others?
TH: Everyone needs to think about the question from their own perspective. You can’t just copy a plan from someone else because it is very region- and sector-specific, which can require an education component. I’ve found that people often want to copy plans from one place for their own.
A really proactive example of a thorough drought plan is rancher Ted Alexander in South Central Kansas. He developed an individualized plan for his ranch based on his monitoring of monthly rainfall. His plan includes details such as: if we don’t get X amount of rain in April/May to get the grasses green, then I become vulnerable and need to proactively implement alternative plans. His community also recently experienced a massive wildfire that killed a lot of invasive cedar trees, and he started a dialogue amongst his neighbors around the importance of managing invasive plants and being proactive.
Q: Because drought is a “creeping” problem, how do you encourage people to be proactive versus reactive?
TH: The key is that we prepare ourselves for the adverse conditions and disasters of the future, which is something we need to be asking as a society as a whole.
We encourage thinking in terms of scenarios. For example, trying to understand what might be the worst case scenario. It comes down to values and thinking through those sorts of scenarios—how much water you need for critical activities, and what you might do if you have very little.
It can be difficult because severe drought is not something that comes along all the time, and there are other stresses that people have to deal with too. At the farm or ranch level, there seem to be different schools of thought. We have worked with ranchers who are very focused on long-term sustainability and health of their rangelands. They know they will be really sunk if they overgraze during a drought because it can bring more invasive plant species, leading their grasslands to an altered, unhealthier state. But for other producers, more immediate issues such as market prices affecting their bottom lines become a priority, and they may think of drought as something they can’t prepare for or control.
MH: We’re much better off when we can provide illustrative examples. When we make general statements about preparing for drought, a local producer might not get excited about the $2 billion annually spent on drought in the U.S. because they don’t feel that as an individual.
If you are going to be proactive, there is going to be a cost. One cost is time to think ahead. Not everyone has that time because they’re busy responding to other things. A second cost is the upfront funds needed for adaptation efforts, and getting people to realize that these upfront costs are worth the savings after an event occurs is a big challenge.
We should all have fire safety protocols in place and bottled water in case of an emergency. We should all exercise to avoid future health problems. As with these examples, preparing for droughts requires forethought. Oftentimes, however, the lack of immediate impact and the nebulous nature of drought make this proactive approach a challenge.
This interview was edited for clarity.