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Can We Predict The Next 2012 Drought?

In a study funded by the National Science Foundation, a group of researchers at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) found that by studying snowmelt and soil moisture experts could have predicted the 2012 drought up to four months in advance.

"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," says 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."

Researches have known that studying soil moisture could improve the lead time of drought predictions by a couple of months. But PaiMazumder and NCAR colleague James Done sought to extend this further adding snowpack to the equation.

The researchers looked at correlations between drought, snowpack and soil moisture over a time frame of more than 30 years. They tested how robust the relationships were by analyzing weather models from a similar timeframe. While soil moisture and snowpack can help predict flash droughts, they won’t replace traditional methods of predicting weather forecasts.  

“Advance knowledge of a drought even a month or two ahead of time can greatly minimize the effects on society,” says 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.”

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