Soil moisture and snowpack data can help predict droughts in the US

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Soil moisture and snowpack data can help predict droughts

In May 2012, seasonal drought forecasts for the coming summer did not foresee a drought forming in the country’s midsection.

But by the end of August, a drought that had started in the Southern Rockies had spread across the Midwest, parching Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and Missouri.

This 2012 drought over the Midwest was one of the most severe and extensive U.S. droughts since the 1930s Dust Bowl.

In a recent study, researchers find that the severe 2012 drought could have been predicted months in advance using soil moisture and snowpack data. The finding is published in Journal of Geophysical Research.

That type of drought is “flash drought”, which can influence large areas in a short time. Flash droughts can lead to big economic losses. For instance, the 2012 drought caused the loss of $30 billion.

Researchers in the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) tried to solve the problem. They analyzed the conditions between 1980-2012, and looked for any warning signs that a drought was on the way.

They also explored risk factors of flash droughts in a new NCAR-based community Weather Research and Forecasting (WRF) model dataset comprising 24 simulations of the period 1990-2000 and 2012.

The result showed strong physical connections among snowpack, soil moisture, and droughts. In addition, the stronger the relationship, the better a predictor is.

Researchers suggest that advance knowledge of a drought even a month or two ahead of time can greatly minimize the effects on society.

This study highlights the role of snowpack and soil moisture conditions in predicting the sudden onset of drought.

While observations of snowpack and soil moisture could have helped predict the 2012 drought, the method does not replace other drought prediction measures that identify large-scale phenomena that frequently lead to drought conditions.

The research is funded by Division of Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences, National Science Foundation

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Citation: PaiMazumder D, Done JM. (2016). Potential Predictability Sources of the 2012 US Drought in Observations and a Regional Model Ensemble. Journal of Geophysical Research, published online. DOI:10.1002/2016JD025322.
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