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US Drought Monitor data gathering network reaches throughout communities and across the nation

August 20, 2018

A two-page information graphic details the five-fold multiplier effect of the U.S. Drought Monitor observer network.

One of the most intriguing and hard-to-duplicate aspects of the U.S. Drought Monitor is the network of observers across the country who contribute data and information each week to help identify the location and intensity of drought.

The U.S. Drought Monitor network includes about 450 members of a listserv who provide input about local conditions or impacts to the authors of the map.  A 2017 survey of this network shed new light on their participation. The survey found that while some network members participate in the listserv but do not contribute, more than 60% of the network members have provided drought information, impacts, and feedback as weekly U.S. Drought Monitor Maps are being developed.  And network members are almost certain to consult local stakeholders about conditions and impacts, significantly extending the effective network of observers.

“Going into this work, we knew we had built an extensive network over the past nearly 20 years, but even I didn’t envision just how deep the tentacles go and how far the network reaches,” said Mark Svoboda, director of the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and one of the original authors of the U.S. Drought Monitor. “That number of 450-plus experts really reaches a much broader network, which serves as our eyes and ears on the ground.”

The survey, administered by the NDMC with the support of the National Integrated Drought Information System, found that on average, each member of the primary network was in touch with five additional people or groups. Those groups often included decision-makers for local, state or federal agencies, the media, or trade organizations.

Most of the primary network participants are climatologists, meteorologists and hydrologists who work with federal, state or academic organizations. Of the 209 network members who responded to the survey:

  • 73% have been with their organization for 11 or more years.
  • 89% said the map had significantly improved drought early warning in the U.S. They also said that the process improved their access to drought-related data and tools, and that discussions helped improve the nation’s ability to identify flash drought and snow drought.
  • 90% said the map made it easier to communicate about drought.
  • 68% said it improved their organization’s capacity to monitor drought.

The observer network provides credibility and authority to the U.S. Drought Monitor, even though people don’t always agree on the depiction of drought.

“This is truly a unique aspect of the U.S. Drought Monitor process that essentially includes a built-in near real-time validation effort,” said Svoboda. “That’s something that just doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world at this level. I see that as being a true strength of our transparent approach. It has enabled the product due to the trust factor and shared ownership with our network participants.”

U.S. Drought Monitor authors, affiliated with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the NDMC, take turns creating the map. Each week, the designated author uses a convergence of evidence approach to decide where to draw lines on the map, based on the best available data, their own expert judgment, and input from observers. Different sources of objective data don’t always tell a consistent story, and it is the author’s job to reconcile these differences, in collaboration with observers.

The map, a joint product of the USDA, NOAA and the NDMC, is online, as is a two-page infographic that helps present the findings.

-- NDMC Communications