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UGA-led project focused on understanding the complexity of droughts

Alan Flurry

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Program Office’s Modeling, Analysis, Predictions, and Projections (MAPP) Program, in collaboration with the National Integrated Drought Information system (NIDIS) program has announcing 11 new 3-year projects that aim to advance our capability to more integrally characterize and anticipate U.S. droughts in the context of hydroclimatic variability and change. The competitively-selected projects, totaling more than $5M in grants and awards, include research led by Thomas Mote, Distinguished Research Professor of geography and Associate Dean in the Franklin College:

Droughts are the result of chains of complex interactions that involve natural and human systems, and as these systems evolve the face of drought may change in ways we don’t understand and anticipate. For example, drought conditions can favor wildfire occurrence, and in turn, fire occurrence can affect snowpack, hydrology, and air quality. Snowpack and hydrology can affect air quality, which can affect clouds and precipitation. Long-term surface temperature increases also influence such processes. 

In order to fully characterize droughts and predict their general evolution and specific stakeholder-relevant thresholds, it is increasingly important that we capture the array of complex interactions which may intervene in U.S. droughts—considering processes across timescales, spatial scales and disciplines, and linking both natural and human-induced effects. Research is needed to advance our understanding of how climate affects drought processes. In addition, we need to know the relevant processes and feedbacks, and link this understanding to a more integrated characterization of droughts and improved probabilistic predictions from seasons to decades. The 11 new projects will help meet these research and information needs and build new cutting-edge capabilities.

Mote will serve as Principal Investigator on 'Understanding the mechanisms leading to early warning of meteorological and hydrological drought in the U.S. Caribbean':

This project will provide critical monitoring and drought early warning improvements in the U.S. Caribbean islands with limited water resources for human populations, unique drought-vulnerable ecosystems, and a recent history of economic hardship and natural hazards--including a major drought in 2015.

“While we don’t commonly think of drought on these tropical islands, it can occur and be quite severe, as we saw this in 2015 and again in the past year," Mote said. "The islands have limited or no groundwater resources, so they depend on regular rainfall. Our project will identify precursors to rapid onset of drought, called ‘flash drought’, particularly how dust transported from Africa can suppress rainfall. Our findings should help improve the predictability of drought for these islands, which would provide local leaders more time to prepare.”

Research capacity-building to advance our understanding of Earth’s climate system has never been more important. A natural climate extreme occurring in nearly all climates,  drought is considered to be a complex phenomenon classified into four major types including meteorological, agricultural, hydrological and socioeconomic drought. Mote's team, representing a wide range of research expertise from UGA, USDA, LSU and Virginia Tech, will undertake important investigations in one of the world's most vulnerable regions.

Image courtesy of NOAA

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