Drought as Disaster

January 7, 2013

There's no need to explain to Texas ranchers or Florida oystermen that drought is disastrous; their losses from drought during the last couple of years can be counted in billions of dollars. But drought doesn't always grab headlines the way other disasters do. Its impacts accumulate slowly, over months and even years, while a hurricane or winter storm can wreak its greatest damage in one day.

Cracked soil at Woolly Hollow State Park, Arkansas, 2006
Cracked soil at Woolly Hollow State Park, Arkansas, 2006 (Photo by John Lewis, National Weather Service)

Today, record-breaking drought conditions persist across wide swaths of the United States. Winter hasn’t brought an end to dry conditions: Jan. 1, 61 percent of the contiguous United States was in some form of drought, and some regions of Texas and the U.S. Southeast have been dry since 2010. In response, government agencies, from federal and tribal to local levels, are laying plans to get the country better prepared for drought. Acting Secretary of Commerce Rebecca Blank and Secretary of Agriculture Thomas Vilsack just signed an agreement to improve the sharing of data and expertise on drought, including drought forecasting and early warning. That action followed the multi-institution National Drought Forum, an effort co-organized by NOAA to prepare the nation better for drought in 2013 and beyond. The Forum took place in Washington, DC in December 2012.

“It has become clear that coordinating drought information development with planning and mitigation efforts across the various levels of government can help lessen the devastation wrought by months of little to no precipitation and help us better prepare for future water shortages,” said NOAA researcher Dr. Roger Pulwarty, who directs the multi-agency National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS).

NOAA and the NOAA-hosted NIDIS helped coordinate the National Drought Forum, which was co-sponsored by nine other federal agencies and institutions including the Western, Midwestern and Southern Governors’ Associations. Keynote speakers included Secretary Vilsack, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback and high-level federal, state, tribal and private sector representatives.

At the working forum, drought experts discussed current drought conditions and impacts, the need for collaboration and the consequences of inaction. “There are times when action taken by one group can challenge or even compromise action by another,” said participant and co-organizer Veva Deheza, a former Colorado state drought planner who works on NIDIS with the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) and NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory. “I think we all emerged with greater appreciation of each others’ issues, and a commitment to proactively move forward on this together.”

Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, Deputy NOAA administrator, called the group to action. “Our nation is more vulnerable than ever to the impacts of disasters such as drought. “Sustained, richer, and broader engagement from those represented at the forum will be required if we are to build ready and resilient communities.”

The Drought Forum higlighted recent actions to improve monitoring, research and the sharing and coordination of drought information and expertise. These include:

  • An agreement for increased collaboration.  NOAA's parent agency, the Department of Commerce, signed a memorandum of understanding Dec. 21 with the U.S. Department of Agriculture that includes commitments to: improved weather and climate forecasts, including those for the onset, duration and severity of drought over seasons to years; improved sharing of data and expertise, including regional and international early warning information systems; better drought data collection; and enhanced adaptation strategies.
  • Regional coordination calls: NIDIS leads weekly and bi-weekly webinars in various U.S. regions, involving on-the-ground experts to improve the nation’s ability to monitor current and evolving drought conditions around the country. Webinar participants include agricultural extension agents, hydrologists, weather forecasters, water resource experts and more. The webinars draw on the research, monitoring and impacts assessments supported by NIDIS and its partner agencies.
  • Use of social media to connect decision makers and information and service providers, e.g. NIDIS on Twitter and Facebook.
  • Innovative planning strategies: This fall, NIDIS co-sponsored a drought planning “tournament” in Colorado, challenging multi-agency teams to deal effectively with an emerging drought scenario in the state. Participants agreed the exercise was valuable and NOAA and NIDIS hope to work with other states and municipalities to replicate the exercise elsewhere.
  • Increased awareness of public health consequences of drought. Drought can affect human health in unexpected ways, increasing risk of certain vector-borne diseases such as West Nile Virus, for example. Prolonged drought has also been linked with mental health concerns, including higher rates of depression. NIDIS and other drought service and information providers are working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health experts to understand how changing conditions can affect health and disease outbreaks and frequency.

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