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In a dry year, U.S. Drought Monitor authors have a lot to consider for mapping conditions

Climatologist educates public on how maps come together each week

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Brian Fuchs, a climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Nebraska, speaks Aug. 4, 2021 during a South Dakota Farm Bureau Carbon and Climate Conversations event at the Holiday Inn Express in Winner. (Marcus Traxler / South Dakota Farm and Ranch)

WINNER, South Dakota — In a drought year like 2021, Brian Fuchs’ phone rings more often and his email inbox fills up faster.

“Hey, in wet years, I can whip out that map and everyone is happy,” he joked. "Drier years are definitely more difficult."

The interest in what he and his colleagues at the U.S. Drought Monitor have to report increases as conditions get drier. He helps write the weekly report and the corresponding maps that classify various levels of drought.

"The map is the end product," Fuchs said. "But the process is what we focus on and what's important to have right."

Fuchs is a climatologist and faculty member at the National Drought Mitigation Center, based in Lincoln, Neb. He recently spoke at four sites around South Dakota as part of a Carbon and Climate Conversations series, hosted by the South Dakota Farm Bureau, including an engagement at the Holiday Inn Express on Aug. 8 in Winner.

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A slide shows the various drought categories and their frequencies on Aug. 4, 2021 during a South Dakota Farm Bureau Carbon and Climate Conversations event at the Holiday Inn Express in Winner. (Marcus Traxler / South Dakota Farm and Ranch)

This year, with much of the western United States dealing with severe, extreme or exceptional drought — which are the three most severe drought conditions issued by the Drought Monitor — Fuchs’ work gets more attention. As of Aug. 24, nearly 32% of the country was in a category of severe drought or worse, and that was after a week where most of the country saw improvements, including in the Great Plains, the Midwest and the Southwest, and extreme and exceptional drought designations declined for the first time in a month.

While the map and its weekly report are important, they’re also imperfect. Fuchs said it’s hard to precisely draw the line between counties, let alone townships or from farm to farm.

“Local conditions can vary,” he said. “That’s always the disclaimer. Your conditions could very well be different from the farm two miles away. … The data is just not at that fine of scale.”

Not yet, at least. Fuchs said one growing issue with compiling the map comes from how much data there is out there. The monitor has a number of statistical inputs and formulas that help guide labeling drought conditions, plus getting reports from hundreds of observers and state climatologists, plus the National Weather Service, university extension employees and hydrologists.

“When we started, we had a handful of indicators, and now we have 40 to 50, and one of the main questions we get is when do you get to the point where you have too much data and you can’t get through it efficiently? And I don’t think we’re there yet, but there will be a point where we might have to prioritize the key indicators, or adjust how we handle the data in growing season, for example.”

The Drought Monitor started on a weekly basis in 2000, and is a collaboration between the National Drought Mitigation Center, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But there is not a consistent federal source of funding for the work, and there’s no single federal agency that is in charge of water or drought policy, instead falling to a number of federal agencies.

There are also droughts of all types. There is meteorological drought, which is when dry weather patterns dominate an area, and hydrological drought, when low water supply becomes evident. Agricultural drought is when crops are affected.

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But Fuchs said there’s types of drought, such as socioeconomic and ecological, where items like supply and demand for human needs and ecological systems for animals are affected. All of them require a different level of response from the public than another.

“The challenge is to represent all of these different types of droughts,” he said. “And that’s hard to do on just one map.”

As for how South Dakota is represented on the map, Fuchs said the helps with the process by bringing a single voice to the process. State climatologist Laura Edwards, a former author of the Drought Monitor, helps funnel much of the needed information from local observers and reporters to the Drought Monitor authors, streamlining the process.

The challenge is not to overreact to one rain event or underreact when conditions are worsening, which is where having the local input from residents is helpful.

“You tend to really focus on the bigger picture and not try to account for every single rain event because you’ll go crazy going up and down this roller coaster or yo-yo, chasing every single rain event. … We want the map to be real consistent. We don’t want to jump into improvements when they didn’t take place and we don’t want to show degradation when that didn’t really happen either.”

Traxler is the assistant editor and sports editor for the Mitchell Republic. He's worked for the newspaper since 2014 and has covered a wide variety of topics. He can be reached at mtraxler@mitchellrepublic.com.
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