LINCOLN, Neb. -- University of Nebraska researchers at the National Drought Mitigation Center are key partners in the Drought Monitor, a new drought-tracking system recently unveiled at the White House.
Federal officials highlighted the new tool during a Washington, D.C., news conference along with other initiatives that aim to ease drought problems in the Northeastern United States.
The Drought Monitor is a new web-based tool for tracking widespread droughts. It highlights emerging trouble spots for various state and federal agencies that can help reduce drought's effects, said Donald Wilhite, an agricultural climatologist in NU's Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources who heads the National Drought Mitigation Center here. The Drought Monitor is primarily designed for drought and water planners and policy-makers but could be of interest to anyone.
"The Drought Monitor is as easy to understand as The Weather Channel's travel advisory, and that's a big difference between the monitor and other ways of looking at drought," Wilhite said. "The monitor makes it easier to identify problem areas and focus attention on them."
The monitor shows how drought is affecting agriculture, wildfire danger and water supplies. For example, while individual farmers usually know when their fields are dry, the monitor shows how widespread the dryness is.
No single definition of drought works in all circumstances, so planners rely on indices -- data presented in various ways and usually depicted as maps -- to recognize droughts. The Drought Monitor combines several indices to produce a single, easy-to-interpret map showing where drought is emerging, lingering, and subsiding around the United States. It's updated as often as once a week, as needed. Drought Monitor and drought index maps are on the World Wide Web at http://enso.unl.edu/monitor.
The Drought Monitor web site was designed by IANR staff and the center's staff maintains it at NU.
NU researchers at the center collaborated with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on this project.
"This is the latest product of ongoing efforts to improve timely drought monitoring nationwide and characterize its severity. This information can be used to coordinate drought planning and response efforts at the federal and state levels," Wilhite said.
Wilhite has worked two decades to find better ways to monitor drought to improve decision-making. That's harder than it sounds. By the time a drought is apparent to a homeowner with a crispy lawn, or to a farmer with withered crops, it's too late for anything besides damage control.
The challenge is recognizing drought, a slow onset or "creeping" natural disaster, before a region is engulfed, Wilhite said. He stressed that drought is a normal, recurring hazard nationwide.
Wilhite established the National Drought Mitigation Center in 1995 with startup funds from NOAA and ongoing support from USDA. The center's interdisciplinary research team focuses on helping states prepare for drought and establish drought early warning systems.
Early warning is a key in preparing for natural disasters, including drought, he said. A homeowner could use early warning of a drought to delay new landscaping for a year or a farmer might use early warning in selecting seed varieties. Mitigation -- taking steps to reduce long-term vulnerability -- also is key to disaster planning. Drought mitigation is partly a matter of recognizing the limits of natural systems and learning to live within them, or compensating with social systems, such as agreements on how to allocate water in times of scarcity, and with technology, such as dams and canals.
The National Drought Mitigation Center is on the web at http://enso.unl.edu/ndmc. The center's research is conducted in cooperation with IANR's Agricultural Research Division.
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