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Drought Assessment in a Changing Climate: Priority Actions & Research Needs

Assessing Drought in a Changing Climate

In a changing climate, the intensity, duration, and frequency of droughts may change. This poses new challenges for drought assessment. Current methods for assessing drought conditions do not consistently and deliberately consider drought in the context of climate change, thereby unintentionally promoting drought response strategies that are limited in building long-term resilience in a changing climate. 

On February 28–March 1, 2023, NOAA’s National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) and the USDA Climate Hubs co-hosted a Technical Workshop on Drought Assessment in a Changing Climate. During the meeting, more than 100 subject matter experts identified priority actions and outstanding research questions aimed to address this issue. 

The outcomes of the meeting directly informed the development of a NOAA Technical Memorandum, Drought Assessment in a Changing Climate: Priority Actions and Research Needs, which highlights priority actions and research questions to improve drought assessment across fifteen focus areas

Read the Report

Research and Learn

Drought Assessment in a Changing Climate: Priority Actions and Research Needs

On November 29, 2023, NIDIS and the USDA Climate Hubs released a NOAA Technical Memorandum, which highlights priority actions and research questions across fifteen research focus areas to advance the knowledge and understanding of drought assessment into the future. This report captures the ideas and feedback of more than 100 subject matter experts from over 44 institutions across the drought research and practitioner communities. It offers a rich collection of ideas for action and further research that federal, tribal, state, and local agencies and academic institutions can support. 

Report cover for "Drought Assessment in a Changing Climate: Priority Actions and Research Needs," published in November 2023.
Executive Summary

The report captures the ideas and feedback of more than 100 subject matter experts from over 44 institutions across the drought research and practitioner communities. Read the executive summary.

State of the Science

Climate change is causing the probability of extreme events, like drought, to change, a phenomenon known statistically as “non-stationarity.” Learn more in the State of the Science section of the report.

Focus Areas for Improving Drought Assessments

The Drought Assessment in a Changing Climate report summarizes priority actions and research questions that the research and practitioner community identified to improve drought assessment. The intent is not to provide authoritative guidance or design specifications for specific research or programmatic endeavors, but to illuminate current and future needs to best account for a changing climate in our drought assessment practices. These research questions and priority actions are broken down into fifteen cross-cutting research focus areas. 

View a short summary of each focus area, as well as select research initiatives working to address the gaps identified in the report.  If you’re interested in a particular focus area, read the full report for a more comprehensive description with a diverse set of actions and research questions for each focus area.

Is your research supporting one or more of these focus areas? Please contact Britt Parker (britt.parker@noaa.gov) to tell us about it!

Learning with Indigenous Communities

Bison Range on the Flathead Reservation, Western Montana. Photo by Crystal Stiles.

Future research should embrace multidisciplinary approaches, incorporating indigenous research methods, embracing different worldviews, and hybrid knowledge frameworks to co-create new knowledge, while also considering data sovereignty and reciprocity.

Download this section of the report for more information, including research questions and priority actions.

Benchmarking Our Understanding and Assessment of Drought in a Changing Climate

A rain gauge filled with water.

Building accurate and useful drought assessments could greatly benefit from a National Academies or similar study on our current understanding of drought and climate change, as a foundation for future research. Knowledge exchange across hazards, sectors,  and with the global drought community could accelerate learning in how to address non-stationarity across multiple hazards.

Download this section of the report for more information, including research questions and priority actions.

Ensuring Equity in Drought Monitoring and Assessment

Weather station in a green field. Photo by Suwin, Shutterstock.

There is a need to address gaps—both spatial and temporal—in environmental observation and impact monitoring that may increase discrepancies between the experiences of drought and our assessment of drought. This should also address disparities in access to assistance and resources.

Download this section of the report for more information, including research questions and priority actions.

Evaluating Data Relevance, Fidelity, Integration, Metadata, and New Technologies

Programmer working at a computer. Photo by Freedomz, Shutterstock.

Where past droughts may not be analogous to future drought, drought indicators should be consistently evaluated for quality and relevance when characterizing drought in a changing climate. This should include exploring emerging data science capabilities and how they can be used to improve drought assessment.

Download this section of the report for more information, including research questions and priority actions.

Determining the Physical Drivers of Drought and How They Are Changing

A typical wintertime El Niño pattern. Map image from Climate.gov.

Weather and climate models must be modernized through continued efforts to better represent land surface processes (e.g., evapotranspiration) and ensure accurate representation of global-scale drivers of drought—even given uncertainty in how these might change in a warming world.

Download this section of the report for more information, including research questions and priority actions.

Understanding Drivers of Aridification and Their Interactions with Drought

Colorado River from Nankoweap Granaries in the Grand Canyon. Photo by Beth Ruggiero-York, Shutterstock.

A unified framework is needed to define, identify, and quantify the drought-to-aridification continuum.  This will help delineate the differences between droughts—episodic events that may last multiple months, seasons, years, decades, centuries— and a permanent change toward a drier climate (aridification). 

Download this section of the report for more information, including research questions and priority actions.

Addressing Regional Differences in Non-Stationarity

Low water levels on Lake Mead. Photo by Michael Vi, Shutterstock.

Climate change manifests differently across space and time and affects regions in unequal ways, and drought assessment should address regional differences. This includes identifying indicators and periods of reference that perform best for the region based on the goal of the assessment. This also recognizes that differences in economic sectors, cultural practices, ecosystems, and habitats create different experiences of drought impacts that need to be accounted for in assessments.

Download this section of the report for more information, including research questions and priority actions.

Improving Drought Indicator Performance

A Palmer Drought Severity Index map of the United States, representing drought indicators.

Drought assessment in a changing climate requires accounting for non-stationarity in drought indicators. In addition, challenges that impact indicator performance must be addressed, including changes in extreme events, snowpack and melt; processes like evapotranspiration and primary productivity due to climate change; as well as work to better understand drought recovery.  

Download this section of the report for more information, including research questions and priority actions.

Using Precipitation Effectiveness More Broadly to Capture Rainfall Variability

Rain falls on a young plant seedling. Photo credit: Shutterstock, Blue Planet Studio.

Current precipitation-based metrics may show drought improvement when, in reality, precipitation has fallen too quickly and has run off instead of infiltrating the soil. Precipitation metrics that can more accurately portray drought conditions are needed as precipitation variability (e.g., extreme events) increases and patterns (e.g., seasonality) change.

Download this section of the report for more information, including research questions and priority actions.

Quantifying Water Demand in a Changing Climate

A red and white checkered water tower, representing water demand. Photo credit: Shutterstock, Craig Hanson.

Drought assessments are complicated by shifts, or potential shifts, in water demand from physical processes (e.g., evapotranspiration) and human water use. Improved understanding and monitoring of changes in water availability and shifts in demand across sectors would provide better insight for future water management. 

Download this section of the report for more information, including research questions and priority actions.

Evaluating Drought Impacts and How They Are Changing

"Extreme Heat Danger" warning sign in Death Valley National Park. Photo credit: Shutterstock, Angel DiBilio.

Climate change not only shifts the physical nature of a drought, but also the ways drought impacts sectors and communities. Climate change may also increase the urgency people have in responding to or adapting to drought. Understanding how human behavior can mitigate or exacerbate how impacts are felt and linking this to drought indicators can inform thresholds for planning and response. 

Download this section of the report for more information, including research questions and priority actions.

Assessing Drought in Terms of Risk

A farmer kneeling among dying corn, representing drought risk to the agricultural sector. Photo credit: Shutterstock, Mladen Mitrinovic.

Assessing drought risk not only considers the probability or likelihood of an event, but also the harmful impacts of the event to specific individuals, communities, and systems. Drought assessment should acknowledge and account for non-stationarity in both the biophysical and human contexts, identify and quantify the cost of drought across social-ecological systems, and link this information to resource management decisions. 

Download this section of the report for more information, including research questions and priority actions.

Assessing Policy through the Lens of Non-Stationarity

A stack of notebooks and documents, representing policy documents. Photo credit: Shutterstock, Eiko Tsuchiya.

The way that drought is assessed and how drought metrics incorporate non-stationarity has policy implications. Policy research needs to examine these implications and how science can inform future policies and programs.

Download this section of the report for more information, including research questions and priority actions.

Strengthening Planning, Management, and Adaptation

A group of people pointing to post-it notes on a white board, representing drought planning. Photo credit: Shutterstock, GaudiLab.

Ultimately, decision-makers need access to appropriate information to inform proactive decision-making based on the best available knowledge and information. The need to link improvements in drought assessment to planning and decision making becomes more relevant, and urgent, given the complexity that non-stationarity brings to this challenge. 

Download this section of the report for more information, including research questions and priority actions.

Improving Communication and Collaborative Knowledge Exchange

A speaker gives a presentation to a crowd of people, representing communication and knowledge exchange. Photo credit: Shutterstock, Monkey Business Images.

Non-stationarity adds to the complexity of communication challenges and necessitates an increased focus on knowledge exchange. This includes communicating confidence and/or uncertainty in drought assessments in a way that informs decision-making. 

Download this section of the report for more information, including research questions and priority actions.

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