US legislation could fill a gap in drought research.
Compared with other types of natural disaster, drought rarely gets the public attention it merits. In east Africa, it is currently devastating entire nations — again. Even in wealthy nations it has a huge human and economic impact. Legislation currently before the US Congress acknowledges the potential role of science in drought preparation and mitigation.
The legislation would create a National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The system would collect drought data, make forecasts and communicate information to the public. According to a bill introduced by Representative Ralph Hall (Republican, Texas), funding would start at $12 million next year (a 50% increase over current federal drought funding), rising to $18 million in 2012. Senator Ben Nelson (Democrat, Nebraska) has introduced a similar bill in the Senate.
NIDIS has enthusiastic support from western states, which bore the brunt of a US drought that ran from 1999 to 2004 and was among the worst for a century. As global warming kicks in, such events are likely to become more frequent and more severe.
Drought forecasting has made real advances in the past decade. The National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has taken the lead in producing an online US Drought Monitor, which tracks the scale and extent of drought nationwide.
Yet much more could be done. Today the relevant data come from a patchwork of federal, state, regional and local agencies. The Department of Agriculture contributes snow-pack measurements, reservoir data come from the US Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation, and the US Geological Survey (USGS) collects groundwater and stream-flow information. NIDIS could pull together, standardize and interpret the data they produce. Drought preparation would benefit from the same kind of focus that the National Hurricane Center in Florida currently provides.
NIDIS would also work to patch holes in the existing data network. Scientists involved in drought prediction could use better maps of soil moisture, for example. And experimental products such as the Vegetation Drought Response Index — designed by the USGS and other agencies to map the effects of drought at high resolution — could be developed more fully.
Funding for drought research may face some resistance from those suspicious that it is a ploy by western states to get some of the money that now goes to places hit by tornadoes and hurricanes. And all the research in the world won't help political leaders prepare for drought unless they come to grips with the contentious problem of water use in the West.
But it would be irresponsible not to learn more about the threat. Globally, there is no question that drought receives less attention than its dreadful consequences merit. Drought is slow, sometimes hard to define, and doesn't look spectacular on television. Senator Nelson has resorted to naming the recent drought in his state ‘Drought David’ in an attempt to raise awareness. Establishing NIDIS would be an even better idea.