Can droughts be predicted?

Vegetation showing water stress during a drought. Image Credit: U.S. Geological Survey

Sometimes. Many droughts can be predicted up to a month in advance[1,2], and in rare cases it may be possible to predict drought conditions more than a year in advance[2]. However, the complexity of Earth’s climate makes drought forecasting very difficult. Whether or not a drought will occur (and how long it will last) depends on a huge number of factors including atmospheric and ocean circulation, soil moisture, topography, land surface processes, and interactions between the air, land, and ocean[1,2]. Predicting the occurrence, severity, and duration of droughts depends on our ability to model and predict these factors. Some droughts are easier to predict than others, and some still take us by surprise[2], but drought forecasting continues to improve as more data are collected and better models are produced[1,2].

A monthly drought outlook is published by the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center at the end of each month, which provides a drought forecast for the following month for all fifty states and Puerto Rico[3].

Weekly drought conditions across the country are provided by the U.S. Drought Monitor, a government-university collaboration hosted by the University of Nebraska, Lincoln[4]. The Drought Monitor also provides a number of other tools and resources, including maps that show changes in drought conditions over time.

References

Predicting Drought National Drought Mitigation Center
2 Research to Advance National Drought Monitoring and Prediction Capabilities, NOAA Drought Task Force 2016 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
3 U.S. Monthly Drought Outlook National Weather Service
4 U.S. Drought Monitor, National Drought Mitigation Center

Learn More

  • Climate Prediction Center (Website) National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
    Compilation of drought monitor, monthly forecast, and seasonal outlook maps
  • Drought.gov (Website) National Integrated Drought Information System
    Governmental portal for drought information - a collaboration of seven federal agencies and the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln
  • Tropical Atmosphere Ocean Project (Website) NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory
    Project that aims to better predict El Niño and La Niña events using real-time temperature data from moored ocean buoys
  • WaterWatch (Website) U.S. Geological Survey
    Website providing maps and data on drought and flood conditions nationally and by state