National Drought Mitigation Center


New tool makes U.S. drought impacts searchable by state and drought level

September 9, 2022

In a period of extreme drought in Massachusetts this summer, conditions were comparatively lush compared to those out West. Drought impact reports, though, showed that dry conditions and low water levels still damaged crops, reduced navigation and distressed wildlife and forests. Berkshire County, August 14, 2022. Photo submitted via CMOR

Though droughts can have long-term, widespread consequences, it can be hard to grasp their full impact. But a new tool from the National Drought Mitigation Center makes it easier to see exactly how drought has affected a state in the past. NDMC’s database of drought impacts documented by the news media can now be filtered by state, intensity of drought, sector and season.

The State Impacts tool adds U.S. Drought Monitor status to records from the Drought Impact Reporter, organizing the collection of impacts by drought status, location and date. Results can also be filtered by season, weeks in drought and sector. The database contains impacts through 2021, including some from U.S.-affiliated territories. Development of the new tool was made possible through support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Office of the Chief Economist.

“An earlier version of this tool used a more limited range of impacts, to demonstrate the value of the concept,” said Kelly Helm Smith, the assistant director of the NDMC. “The criticism we heard most frequently was that it didn’t include all the known impacts. Now it does, and people can use the filters to cut down the number of results to something manageable.”

The Drought Impact Reporter has systematically collected drought impacts documented in news reports since 2005. Drought impact data can guide decision-makers on where to direct relief and help planners identify underlying vulnerabilities to address to avoid future impacts.

“A goal of planning is to better understand the context of drought for a particular region and sector so that people can make more informed management decisions,” said Cody Knutson, NDMC’s planning coordinator. “This tool allows users to better understand how the types of impacts change as drought becomes more intense or prolonged, which is essential for identifying and implementing effective drought measures.”

Smith adds that organizing impacts by state and sector can also illustrate the variability in how drought manifests. “Drought looks different in different places,” said Smith. “It’s important to understand the range of possible impacts and issues that can arise based on a place’s climate, geography and major industries.”

That variability can be seen in the sheer range of impacts that are searchable in the new tool. There are some that appear in almost every state, like burn bans, water restrictions and fires. Some of the most common and widespread impacts can be found by filtering for the ‘Agriculture’ sector, including reduced crop yields, changes in harvest and poor pasture condition.

But the tool includes filters for other sectors as well. Under ‘Plants and Wildlife’ are reports of algae blooms in Florida, increased conflicts with thirsty black bears in Nevada and bark beetle infestations in Idaho. In the ‘Energy’ sector, users can learn more about the impacts of drought on hydropower production and energy rates in California. Meanwhile, in the ‘Business and Industry' sector, there are reports of ski resorts closing in Colorado, commercial fishing restrictions in Alaska and Christmas tree growers struggling in Iowa.

Some of these impacts are obvious, others less so. Some take several weeks of drought to appear, while others are evident more quickly. And some impacts are unique to certain states and regions, while others are widespread. The new tool provides insight into these patterns, highlighting the full range of potential issues that arise during drought and the array of challenges that decision-makers must confront when planning for, and responding to, drought.

“Impacts are important because they help tell the story of drought,” said Deb Bathke, education coordinator for the NDMC. “When we can link physical indicators to impacts, it helps turn drought into something tangible that people can understand.”

Visit the new tool:

-- Leah Campbell, NDMC Communications