Nebraska Engineering Fall, 2006
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High and Dry

UNL computer engineers help farmers and ranchers weather drought.


High and Dry

No farmer wants to run pivots in May to force his crops to germinate. Or worse, not plant at all for fear that he could lose his crops if it doesn’t rain. Alas, that is reality for Nebraska farmers coping with a seventh consecutive summer of drought.

Farmers and ranchers will soon have more resources to help them plan for dry seasons. The United States Department of Agriculture awarded a $6.4 million, three-year cooperative agreement between the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, the University of Nebraska–Lincoln National Drought Mitigation Center and the USDA Risk Management Agency to renovate an online clearinghouse for climate and drought information.

“The long-term approach is to prepare and mitigate the impact of a drought,” said Steve Goddard, associate professor of computer science and engineering. “We should plan for droughts because they’re going to happen.”

UNL engineering researchers developed the technology for the online support tools at http://nadss.unl.edu. Launched in 2000, the Web site allows users to choose from numerous options to create custom maps for risk analysis and planting date guidelines. Goddard said these features have proved more useful for researchers than producers, who want fixed maps that are easy to read and interpret.

we should plan for droughts because they're going to happen - steve goddard

“In hindsight, we realized you need to know too much to use this on an operational basis,” Goddard said.

For 11 years, the Drought Mitigation Center has conducted drought research and provided information to federal and state governments that make water and irrigation policies. A growing part of the center’s mission is helping producers with drought planning.

Mark Svoboda, a climatologist with the Drought Mitigation Center, said access to data on precipitation trends, weather forecasts and soil conditions would help producers anticipate, rather than react to, drought.

Svoboda said producers who make contingency plans before the growing season have more control over drought than those who simply hope Mother Nature will deliver rain. Planning measures include planting drought-resistant yields and crops, or weaning calves earlier so their mothers don’t need to graze as much.

In the process, he said, hopefully producers will learn valuable lessons for the next drought.

“It’s not just about getting through this one because after it’s done, another one will come eventually,” Svoboda said.

Beginning in August, a team of engineers and climatologists will launch Project GreenLeaf, a Web site that will replace existing drought planning tools. The team will unveil a new feature every one to six weeks. Goddard said most of the tools will show not only past and current conditions, but also project drought trends three to six months in advance. Drought projections will be based on the National Weather Service’s temperature and precipitation predictions.

“Producers will be able to see if weather patterns hold, will that translate into drought?” Goddard said.

The agreements provide the resources to develop new, easy-to-use features such as an early warning system if forecasters predict dry weather. Eventually, producers may be able to assess how vulnerable their land is to drought based on location, terrain and use. If the worst happens, a drought calculator will help producers estimate financial loss.

Steve GoddardAnother $1.2 milion, three-lyear agreement will allow the Department of Computer Science and Engineering to further develop the Vegetation Drought Response Index, which uses satellite and climate data to analyze drought conditions down to the square mile. Svoboda said precision was key because drought severity can vary drastically within areas as local as a county depending where storms hit. “If someone is considering applying for a federal aid program, the burden of justification is often on the producer,” he said. “They need access to climate data to back their cases.” As simple as a climate data map appears, creating one is a formidable task. The entire data set contains more than 1 billion climactic values spanning over 110 years. Because the system provides operational values, having current information is critical.

“We’ve had to put a lot of effort into solving this problem,” Goddard said. “By using distributed data technologies we were able to cut a process that used to take days into about four hours.” The data comes from the High Plains Regional Climate Center, part of the National Climate Data Center. The department receives the data in temporal form and converts it into spatial form for mapmaking. The department made its own data conversion program because the feature wasn’t commercially available through Geographic Information Systems. GIS is a standard program for gathering and managing geographic data. “By nature, producers are an optimistic bunch,” Goddard said. “The key is to give them quantifiable information they can use in the decision process.”