Published on The Water Blog

The U.S. Drought Monitor: A Sophisticated Tool, But Do Not Be Intimidated by It

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ImageEvaluating the existence and extent of droughts is not an easy task. Not only are droughts "slow-onset" events that creep into the physical, environmental, and social systems of a region, they also have effects that span numerous sectors of a society. The U.S. Drought Monitor (USDM), as recently described by Dr. Michael Hayes from the National Drought Mitigation Center (NDMC) during a recent presentation at the World Bank, provides an example for other nations as they consider how to effectively manage this difficult endeavor of characterizing drought risks and impacts.

The USDM developed over the past decade and a half, and it is a process as much as it is a product. Each week, experts from 11 authoring entities from around the U.S. produce a map that characterizes the severity of drought through a percentile- based composite indicator that combines measures such as rainfall, soil moisture, steamflow, reservoir levels, snowpack, and others. The iterative process to develop the weekly map begins on Monday morning and involves back-and-forth between expert teams and also “ground-truthing” of drought impacts via a network of over 350 federal/state government and academic/university partners. Ultimately, the authors release the map each Thursday morning.
The Monitor is not just a scientific exercise in characterizing drought. Policy makers frequently turn to it to help guide their decisions. For instance, USDM authors previously released the map on Thursday afternoons, after the Commodities markets closed in Chicago. Traders complained that their competitors abroad were gaining an unfair advantage through the information supplied by the Monitor, and convinced the authors to revise the release date to Thursday mornings, just before the U.S. markets opened.

This ability for the USDM to shape decisions and policies comes only after considerable time and effort to establish the science and information that feeds into the Monitor (i.e., monitoring stations and equipment, technical capacity and models, and coordination between the various inputs), according to Dr. Hayes. He also believes that building the scientific community and engaging decision makers along the way is one of the most effective means for securing ‘buy-in’ and trust for the importance implementing longer-term proactive drought mitigation and risk-based management measures, such as vulnerability and resilience assessments and mitigation and response planning.

In the end, an iterative and committed technical network of government, academic, and non-governmental organizations is the foundation upon which effective drought monitoring takes place in the U.S. Other countries interested in pursuing a similar track as the U.S. should not be intimidated. In applying the lessons learned from the USDM experience, Dr. Hayes emphasizes that the U.S. Drought Monitor came from “humble beginnings”, and could most certainly be adapted and applied to any country in the world.


Nate Engle

Senior Climate Change Specialist

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