DROUGHT: History of the U.S. Monitoring System

Image of dust storm approaching Stratford, Texas, on April 18, 1935

Dust storm approaching Stratford, Texas, on April 18, 1935
Credit: NOAA Photo Library

Most people have read or have heard stories about the Dust Bowl years, during which the United States experienced the most devastating impacts of drought in recorded history. The Dust Bowl and subsequent severe drought events have led weather and climate scientists to seek information that could anticipate such harmful conditions. Still, a void existed to distribute acquired knowledge, and severe droughts continued to occur without ample warning and without a central source of timely and accurate information. Six decades later, in the late 1990s and early 2000s when drought conditions again became severe in the West, the Western Governors’ Association (WGA) picked up the charge to organize the science side of ensuing policy recommendations and to implement the recommendations in the groundbreaking report “Preparing for Drought in the 21st Century.” In 2004, in its own report, the WGA put forth its vision for a national entity to disseminate timely, understandable, and practical information to the public based on scientific knowledge and data. Two years later, the 109th Congress passed the National Integrated Drought Information System Act (NIDIS Act), which was signed into law, and NIDIS was “born.”

Today, NIDIS (www.drought.gov) has evolved into the authoritative resource for U.S. drought information and services and serves to inform not only policymakers but also a wide array of constituents across the Nation—from water managers, to farmers, to cattle and horse ranchers, to businesses that rely primarily on the availability of water, to operators of recreational centers, to everyday citizens. In addition to the U.S. Drought Portal, NIDIS relies heavily on the U.S. Drought Monitor, which provides a weekly map showing current drought conditions across the United States according to established designations. Those designations, D0 for abnormally dry conditions to D4 for exceptional drought, are roughly based on return intervals for drought conditions and were developed to describe the intensity of drought in terms of broad-scale impacts rather than to pinpoint specific drought conditions through a single indicator. The narrative that accompanies the map discusses the weather-related details that contributed to each region’s conditions and the impacts of the drought in addition to providing a look at the short-term forecast for the United States.

This is the first in a series of articles about monitoring and assessing drought conditions across the United States. Check back next week to learn more about the weekly drill behind the U.S. Drought Monitor and its authors.