National Drought Mitigation Center


Drought Center kicks off $1 million Defense project to predict unrest

July 11, 2022

This Composite Drought Indicator map for the Southern Africa Region for December 2021 shows conditions approaching 1 in 50-year occurrences in Namibia and Angola to the west, and in Mozambique, Tanzania and Madagascar to the east. It combines four different indicators of drought: a 3-month Standardized Precipitation Index, Land Surface Temperature, Normalized Differentiated Vegetation Index, and Root Zone Soil Moisture.

We know that weather and climate can contribute to civic unrest, especially in countries with little to no social safety net, where people depend on subsistence farming to feed themselves and their families. The question is, can we predict civic unrest, along with the weather?

To begin answering that question, researchers at the National Drought Mitigation Center, based at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln School of Natural Resources, received the first $1 million of funding from U.S. Air Force Weather this spring (2022) for the first phase of a bigger project.

The project, “Building a Global Composite Drought Indicator (GCDI) Hot Spot Early Warning and Information System,” is led by NDMC director Mark Svoboda and started in March. The NDMC is teaming up with others on campus, including Ross Miller, Department of Political Science, Tirthankar Roy, College of Engineering and Brian Wardlow, director of the Center for Advanced Land Management Information Technologies (CALMIT).

In the first phase of work, the NDMC will develop a Global Composite Drought Indicator, based on physical measurements of water availability such as precipitation, soil moisture, evapotranspiration, and vegetation health. NDMC has extensive experience working with countries around the globe to construct composite drought indices, based on what data is available and what sectors are most vulnerable. Socio-economic indicators that describe vulnerability to drought will be incorporated as a next step. Machine learning techniques will help guide the team along with feedback from key partners within the Air Force.

“Using multiple data sources and adapting to whatever is available for a country or region is consistent with the ‘convergence of evidence’ approach that the U.S. Drought Monitor is based on,” Svoboda said. “A key difference here, besides generating an operational global product for the first time, is that we may have to use remote sensing data for countries that don’t have enough on-the-ground weather stations, or in countries where they don’t share data freely. We may also need to use innovative methods to come up with drought assessments in areas where the period of record is short or non-existent. Drought is always a comparison to some normal, and there are places where we don’t have enough data to say what is normal.” Svoboda said the next stage of work will expand to include more partners and to examine more drought hotspots.

The NDMC works extensively with United Nations agencies such as the World Meteorological Organization, the Convention to Combat Desertification, and the Food and Agriculture Organization, and with federal agencies in the U.S., including NASA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the U.S. Agency for International Development. This project, Building the GCDI, is the NDMC’s first foray into working with the Department of Defense (DoD).

-- NDMC Communications