Study eyes ‘flash drought’ forecasts

State officials hope to be well-prepared for the next inevitable drought in Colorado.
State officials hope to be well-prepared for the next inevitable drought in Colorado.

Soil moisture, snowpack data help inform new forecast modeling

Staff Report

Some droughts creep up on you, while others seem to come out of nowhere, like in 2012 when spring came early and a hot, dry summer parched fields and forests and led to a busy wildfire season, including the destructive Waldo Canyon blaze near Colorado Springs.

Seasonal forecasts issued in May 2012 did not foresee a drought forming in the country’s midsection. But by the end of August,  the drought had spread across the Midwest, parching Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and Missouri. Now, after analyzing conditions leading up to the drough, researchers at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, say similar droughts in the future could be predicted by paying close attention to key indicators like snowmelt and soil moisture. 

“The 2012 drought over the Midwest was one of the most severe and extensive U.S. droughts since the 1930s Dust Bowl, but it was also extremely challenging to predict,” said Debasish PaiMazumder, lead author of the study. “This study demonstrated the potential to improve seasonal drought outlooks in the future, giving farmers, water planners, and others more time to prepare.”

So-called flash droughts have been difficult to predict because they aren’t preceded by any as-yet apparent  large-scale climate patterns that could act as a warning signal. By contrast, the continuing long-term drought in California was foreseeable due to the presence of a persistent high pressure system off the West Coast that pushed storms away from the state.

Previous research has shown that looking at soil moisture alone could improve the lead-time of drought predictions by one to two months. PaiMazumder and NCAR colleague James Done were interested in whether they could extend this further by adding snowpack into the equation.

“Advance knowledge of a drought even a month or two ahead of time can greatly minimize the effects on society,” said Anjuli Bamzai, program director in NSF’s Division of Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences, which funded the research. “This study highlights the role of snowpack and soil moisture conditions in predicting the sudden onset of drought.”

To explore the physical connections among snowpack, soil moisture, and drought, the researchers analyzed data collected between 1980-2012. To supplement those observations, they also explored the physical connections in a new NCAR-based community Weather Research and Forecasting (WRF) model dataset comprising 24 simulations of the period 1990-2000 and 2012. Because each simulation was run with small tweaks to the way the model represents atmospheric physics, the result was a broad look at different climate scenarios that could have plausibly unfolded during the study period.

“The model helped us get a handle on how robust the relationships between snowpack, soil moisture, and drought are,” Done said.

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.

“This is another ingredient that could be used when making seasonal drought forecasts,” Done said. “But it’s not the only ingredient, and for many droughts that are tied to large-scale precursors, it may not be the most important one.”

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