News | National Drought Mitigation Center
National Drought Mitigation Center

News

U.S. Drought Monitor now provides county-level drought maps

June 22, 2022

A new Drought Monitor tool allows viewers to easily access county-level drought data, like the most recent drought conditions from June 14, 2022 for Hitchcock County, Nebraska.

May and June brought much-needed rain to states from the Pacific Northwest to the Great Plains after a brutally dry start to the year. Yet moderate to exceptional drought conditions persist across much of the west. Each day, experts and reporters drive home the severity of the current crisis with headlines like, “Southwest Megadrought Worst in At Least 1,200 Years,” “Great Plains Could See Its Most Significant Drought in a Decade” and “Farmers in the Plains are in ‘Dire Straits’ Due to Drought.”

What those headlines miss, though, is that drought impacts on the ground can change quickly, and conditions can vary dramatically over short distances. For farmers, ranchers and observers of the U.S. Drought Monitor, the concern is often less about what’s happening on a national or even a regional scale than what’s happening right in their backyard. Visitors to the USDM website will now be able to visualize that local story more clearly than ever with a new tool that provides data on drought conditions down to the level of individual counties.

“We’re always looking for what’s the next thing we can do to the data or add to the website to make it more useful for people,” said Jeff Nothwehr, a GIS specialist with the National Drought Mitigation Center.

Visitors have long been able to access county-level data through the Drought Monitor website at droughtmonitor.unl.edu. Drought Monitor data tables and time series — showing the area and population affected by different categories of drought — are available at various geographic scales, including counties, tribal areas (as of last year), states, regions, and the country as a whole. But until now, maps have stopped at the state level. With the new County Drilldown Tool developed by the NDMC, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of the Chief Economist, visitors to the site will be able to easily zoom in to view current drought conditions and data for their county.

“We work to give users what they ask for,” said Brian Fuchs, an NDMC climatologist and long-time Drought Monitor author. “A lot of times that means finer spatial granularity, or something already generated that they could drop into a document or a presentation with one or two clicks.”

Take Nebraska, for example. In late April, a large swath of central Nebraska, running from the South Dakota to the Oklahoma border, was gripped by extreme drought (D3). By the middle of June, conditions had improved dramatically, with much of the state moving into the moderate drought (D1) category. Yet, the local story in southwestern Nebraska is more complicated. In Hitchcock County, for example, 100 percent of the county has degraded from severe to extreme drought over the last three months. Meanwhile, in Dundy County, right next door, conditions have gone from 100 percent severe drought three months ago, to a more even split across the county between moderate, severe and extreme drought. 

By capturing that geographic nuance and providing mapping tools at a finer scale, the NDMC hopes that it’ll make the Drought Monitor more accessible and meaningful to stakeholders. “There are some things that are specific to counties,” said Nothwehr, giving the Livestock Forage Disaster Program as an example. The program, through the Department of Agriculture, provides aid to farmers when their county hits a certain drought threshold for an extended period of time. Nothwehr added that highlighting local conditions may also encourage visitors to the site to add observations of how the Drought Monitor compares to what they’re seeing on the ground through the NDMC’s Condition Monitoring Observer Reports.

Drought Monitor county maps may also be of use in local hazard mitigation planning, comprehensive planning, water planning and other local processes that increase resilience. Though the county-level data has been available through the Drought Monitor, making that data more accessible is a priority for the NDMC and its partners at the Department of Agriculture. As Fuchs noted, “The county-level maps can help local planners and producers.”

-- Leah Campbell, NDMC Communications