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Texas A&M researchers look to modernize drought detection

Texas A&M researchers look to modernize drought detection

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Just as warning systems for tornadoes and earthquakes have evolved over the years, Texas A&M research assistant professor Brent McRoberts said he and colleague John Nielsen-Gammon are working to develop a more advanced system for drought detection.

McRoberts said while the project -- titled "Improving the Drought Monitoring Capabilities of Land Surface Models by Integrating Bias-Corrected, Gridded Precipitation Estimates" -- is in the experimental stage, the "ultimate hope" is to see it put to use by federal agencies such as the National Weather Service and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

McRoberts, who teaches in the department of geography, said the models could give a better indication of moisture levels at or below the surface of the ground -- levels that when properly monitored could provide advanced warning for drought.

"This is our best attempt to estimate the top two meters of the soil inside of a computer," McRoberts said. "… The main idea is that it can be used as part of a drought early-warning system. With things like tornadoes, we're always trying to improve our lead time, improving from five minutes to 10 minutes to hopefully a half hour. It's sort of the same thing with drought, just on a different timescale."

He said he believes the advanced warning would specific be useful for the Texas agriculture industry and their efforts to protect their crops and other products.

Nielsen-Gammon, regents professor in the department of atmospheric sciences and Texas state climatologist, said the model could help provide better weather forecasting in a variety of areas from temperature to rainfall and through longer-term forecasting. 

"It matters whether the energy coming in from the sun gets converted into heat or moisture through evaporation -- that affects temperatures, that affects rainfall and so forth," Nielsen-Gammon said. "It's a big local driver of weather and consequently, not only does this improve local weather forecast, but the weather in one place influences the weather in another, so it has longer-range implications as well."

McRoberts and Nielson-Gammon said their project has recently received three years of grant funding from NOAA's Modeling, Analysis, Predictions and Projections program and the National Integrated Drought Information System. 

Nielson-Gammon said better modeling could let professionals have a "bigger picture of what's going on and where the areas of particular concern are."

Looking forward, McRoberts said he and Nielson-Gammon are hopeful the project will soon be a tool for weather professionals nationally by the time its three-year funding has concluded.

"The ultimate hope for this project is that this new precipitation data set that we've created will be used operationally," McRoberts said. "… We want to get the precipitation product operational by the time this project timeframe is over with, and then, of course, running the land surface models using the precipitation models."

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