National Drought Mitigation Center


Master’s project takes Drought Center student from Nebraska to Alaska

July 17, 2023

NDMC master’s student Grace Campbell traveled to Alaska to help develop an Alaska Composite Drought Index.

By Emily Case-Buskirk, NDMC Communications Specialist

Alaska’s climate is changing faster than any other state in the U.S. To address the vast region’s unique climate needs and help Alaskans better prepare for drought events, University of Nebraska master’s student Grace Campbell developed a state-specific drought index.

Campell, a student in the School of Natural Resources, developed the Alaska Composite Drought Index (ACDI) and published it as a master’s thesis this May. Advisors were Mark Svoboda, National Drought Mitigation Center (NDMC) director; Deborah Bathke, NDMC education coordinator; and Michael Hayes, climatologist and professor in the School of Natural Resources.

The project is also part of the United States Department of Agriculture $1.275 million cooperative agreement with the USDA's Office of the Chief Economist.

“It has ties to agriculture: how does weather and climate affect agriculture and natural resources, and how can we mitigate that?” she said. “That’s when I got my thesis idea and got to go to Alaska.”

Farming looks much different on the Last Frontier. According to USDA ag census data, 43% of operations are smaller than 9 acres. Major outputs are hay, barley, oats, potatoes, vegetables, fruits and flowers. Farm operations are also on the rise, with 1,000 Alaska farm operations reported to the USDA in 2022, a 31% increase from the 2012 census.

However, Alaska producers have already been contending with climate change-related challenges. With increasing temperatures in the state, streamflow and runoff are happening earlier and faster, Campbell said.

While this results in a longer growing season that improves some crop yields, there are also many negative effects. Some crops are adversely affected by the shifting growing season, and warmer temps cause more issues with pests, weeds, diseases and plant pathogens.

In a drought Alaska experienced from 2016 to 2019, many villages ran out of water, causing communities to use generators powered by diesel fuel, according to Campbell’s thesis. Despite these rapid climate developments, the state was lacking drought-specific data, making drought research difficult. The region is ill-suited for drought indices developed for climates within the contiguous U.S.

To address this multifaceted issue, the ACDI uses a principal components analysis approach, which simplifies multi-dimensional datasets while retaining their trends and patterns. The index uses 17 input variables including temperature, precipitation, streamflow, snow water equivalent, snow depth, Normalized Difference Vegetation Index, Evaporative Stress Index and soil moisture data.

To verify the ACDI, Campbell compared her outputs with the U.S. Drought Monitor (USDM) and impact reports. Results showed the ACDI was able to capture the unique characteristics of each of Alaska’s 13 climate divisions on a monthly basis and produce insightful drought data. Compared to other climate models, the ACDI shows that precipitation and streamflow are more telling indicators of drought in Alaska.

As part of her project, Campbell joined Bathke; Tonya Haigh, NDMC social science coordinator; and research assistant Caily Schwartz on a multidisciplinary trip to Alaska. They traveled to Delta Junction and Palmer, conducting workshops with farmers about drought, agriculture and water use.

While there, Campbell had the opportunity to connect with farmers, scientists and Native community leaders. Through these conversations, she gained invaluable information to apply to her research.

“For me it reinforced the idea that if we’re going to do something like this — a research project or explore things that affect people directly — talk to people it impacts,” she said. “We went into it with a preconceived notion as scientists. They might have different priorities.”

For example, one eye-opening takeaway was about groundwater use in Alaska. Most public drinking water systems in the state use a public groundwater source, according to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

“One thing they told us was what about groundwater levels,” she said. “That’s not something we thought about because it’s frozen. But they do. That’s the first thing that came to mind (for them).”

She hopes that Alaskans can someday use the ACDI in tandem with the USDM. First, it will have to be converted into a usable format and developed into a web app.

“They’re both different, they can be used in different ways and can support each other,” she said. “I’m hoping (the ACDI) can provide another tool.”


Campbell’s thesis, “The Last Drought Frontier: Building a Drought Index for the State of Alaska,” can be accessed via the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Digital Commons.