Eighth floor of Hardin Hall, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Got drought? The U.S. Drought Monitor knows.
From a tangle of computer terminals in small, drab offices here on Big Red’s East Campus, the U.S. Drought Monitor last week released its latest map of a nation baked and brittle. News organizations everywhere rely on the color-coded images — yellow being moderate drought and dark brown being soil-cracking “exceptional,” a kind way of saying the worst of the worst.
At present, more than 45 percent of the country is suffering severe, extreme or exceptional drought. “Every one of the lower 48 states has a touch of it,” says climatologist Brian Fuchs, taking time this morning to round out a month of more than 150 media interviews for him.
The national picture is as bad as the U.S. Drought Monitor has assessed things in its 12 years of operation.
The Monitor is the brainchild of the Nebraska-based National Drought Mitigation Center, established in the mid-1990s by agricultural meteorologist Don Wilhite, now known the world over as “Dr. Drought.”
As early as the 1980s, “Dr. Drought realized nobody was doing drought research,” Fuchs said, and the science of measuring drought was limited to something called the Palmer Index.
The Palmer Index, largely based on soil moisture and river flows, did its job telling researchers when dry was really dry. But Nevada and New Mexico were always dry, no?
What the drought dudes here recognized was that you need different tools to research and monitor places where drought strikes only on occasion — and this year, it’s Missouri, Arkansas, eastern Kansas and on up to Nebraska, all blotchy reds and browns on the map
So The Monitor relies as much on boots-on-the-ground reports, historical accounts and anecdotes as it does slide rules and mathematical models. Hundreds of extension agents, weather watchers and raw-bone farmers with rain gauges keep The Monitor posted in ways that could not have been done before the Internet.
Yes, social media meets drought.
One feature of its Website — www.drought.unl.edu — is Drought Impact Reporter, a daily compendium of personal observations and media reports specific to each county in the nation.
The personal damage completes the picture. “It’s like the tree falling in the forest. If a drought hits and nobody is really impacted by it, is it really a drought?” asked the mitigation center’s Kelly Helm Smith.
The drought mitigation center, basically a hallway roamed by geeks in blue jeans and sandals, has risen in stature to become the nation’s arbiter of where dryness has culminated in natural disaster. Counties can become eligible for tax-support relief and emergency loans based on how long The Monitor has colored them red or brown.
It is ironic that, given such public-money gravitas, the 18 or so staffers and students who assess droughts don’t earn public salaries. Only center director Michael Hayes draws a university-funded salary; the others must chase down research grants when they’re not chasing drought.
“There’s no public, line-item budget anywhere that supports what we’re doing,” said Fuchs. “Like any non-profit, we all have to compete for grant money to keep our jobs.”
| Rick Montgomery, rmontgomery.com