U.S. Drought Monitor Myths
May 10, 2018
As the summer grazing season approaches, ranchers will be watching the U.S. Drought Monitor closely to see if their pastures have shifted to a higher drought category.
In a previous article, producers shared their concerns about the accuracy of the U.S. Drought Monitor. The monitor was established in 1999 and is a tool traditionally used by journalists in weather reporting, by fire fighters mapping out potential fire dangers, by policymakers in Washington D.C. to better understand what producers are dealing with back in their home states, and by ranchers themselves who use the information to proactively plan for drought conditions that might impact their forage supplies.
However, scrutiny over the U.S. Drought Monitor has increased in recent years when it became the primary tool to be used in the past two Farm Bills for determining drought response and relief actions.
According to Rachel Steele, USDA National Climate Hubs coordinator, and Mark Brusberg, a chief meteorologist for the World Agriculture Outlook Board, "The Drought Monitor is considered the gold standard in identifying the location and severity of drought events. Shortly after its release, USDA began using the Drought Monitor as a trigger for several of its programs. In fact, the 2008 and 2014 versions of the Farm Bill mandate the use of the Drought Monitor to identify areas available for Livestock Forage Program (LFP) relief and to calculate the level of support available to ranchers, leading to delivery of more than $6 billion for that program alone. In recent years, the USDA and National Drought Mitigation Center (NDMC) have made the Drought Monitor and its companion products more useful to the public, including the addition of a Spanish-language version, data on regional drought impacts, and improvements to tools like the Drought Impact Reporter and an eligibility calculator for the LFP."
Today, the U.S. Drought Monitor relies on 40-50 indicators including different climates, temperature, precipitation, soil moisture, river levels, snow pack, vegetation, remote sensing and satellite data to calculate areas of drought and formulate accurate maps.
Yet, it's a common misconception that precipitation alone is the single factor in determining worsening areas of drought on the monitor. Brian Fuchs, University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) NDMC associate geologist/climatologist, wants to set the record straight on other preconceived notions about the mapping process.
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"Absolutely now that the USDA has utilized the U.S. Drought Monitor into some of their relief programs, there is much more scrutiny on the maps that we maybe didn't have before," said Fuchs, who is part of a large network of authors who publish the map each Thursday morning at 8:30 a.m. ET. "Our challenge is to continue to put out an accurate map each week and to continue educating producers on our process."
In addition to working closely with the USDA to provide additional information to their field level employees, so they have a better understanding of how the Drought Monitor works, the NDMC has also developed a series of workshops to provide greater detail in the mapping process and all that it entails. The tutorials can be viewed at http://drought.unl.edu/tutorials.aspx.
"We tried to hit on the main questions or concerns that people mention the most, and we encourage producers to check these tutorials out to give them a better perspective on the process and the various data sets we rely on when authoring the map," said Fuchs. "One thing I want producers to know is at the end of the day, as an author I want to be able to validate what the map is telling us about current conditions by referencing the scientific data that helped us make that determination."
In a state like South Dakota where counties are large, populations are small and stations may be few and far between, that's where producers may be seeing discrepancies in what the monitor is reporting and what they are actually experiencing in their area.
"I know that drought relief is designated by counties, so a lot of times people will make reports on the county level, but as an author, we simply focus on the data and what is trending where," said Fuchs. "We have the ability to ignore geopolitical boundaries when we are drawing the map, which is helpful because it assists me in making a determination on drought conditions based on the data and not the location. I don't have to make the call if the drought categories will spread from South Dakota to Wyoming or one county to another; I simply follow the data and make those calls based on the information we have."
Last year's drought resulted in an overwhelming amount of calls and emails from producers describing current conditions, and while communicating with the authors is incredibly beneficial, the accuracy of reporting and the types of reporting are key to making a difference.
"Something which has happened with recent droughts out in western South Dakota, is that ranchers had the idea that if they bombarded the NDMC's Drought Impact Reporter (DIR) with hundreds of reports on impacts, that the sheer quantity of reports would change the map," said Fuchs. "That idea is false and hard to retract from, even yet today. For the data that comes into the DIR, 100 reports of the same impact is counted as one report."
Fuchs said additional information is necessary to provide accurate and relevant information to the DIR.
"We need more information to get a better picture of what's going on," said Fuchs. "For example, one producer in Western South Dakota sent me photos of their pasture in a normal year compared to the drought they were experiencing last year. Photos are extremely helpful, as well as economic impact reports. If we hear from producers that they've had to liquidate their herds because of extreme drought conditions, that is a better indicator to us than simply reporting that it's dryer than normal."
With the USDA relying on the monitor to determine LFP premiums, Fuchs said it's important to understand the context in which payments will be made.
"For the drought intensity levels, a D3 drought (Extreme) is a one in 25 year event, which means that conditions in a D3 drought would only happen 3-5 times in 100 years," said Fuchs. "For D4 (Exceptional) drought, this is a 1 in 50 to 100 year type of event meaning that conditions in D4 will only take place 1-2 times in a 100 year period. These are indeed the rare drought events. The current LFP program is using the U.S. Drought Monitor as a trigger as it is trying to provide relief for the truly rare events. My observations lead me to believe that there is an idea out there that every drought will be covered by LFP, which is not the case. In the end, the authors will not change the map based on thresholds of a relief program. We have to have the process be driven by drought data."
Keeping this in mind, Fuchs encourages producers to continue to report relevant information to assist the authors in creating the weekly maps. Producers can submit information via the DIR forms or email at DIRinfo@unl.edu. Becoming a volunteer through the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail & Snow (CoCoRaHS) network is another avenue for reporting. Additionally, producers can reach Fuchs directly at drought firstname.lastname@example.org.