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More Studies, Faster Forecasting Needed To Fight Flash Drought, Says Paper

An image of a dusty parcel of land showing crops completely dried out from drought.
A 2017 flash drought in the Northern Plains caused $2.6 billion in damages and ravaged livestock and agriculture.

Researchers in our region are arguing for new models to better plan for a recent climate phenomenon: flash droughts. According to a new paper published in the journal Nature Climate Change, these events present new challenges for climate predictors.

Angie Pendergrass is a scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado and a co-author of the paper. She said current models are better at measuring long-term drought effects.

“There needs to be a faster timeframe that we monitor, [to] say where we are and what’s happening,” said Pendergrass. “Instead of every week, that needs to happen perhaps every few days.”

Flash droughts are short-term climate events where an area will experience a sudden and rapid escalation of drought conditions. Pendergrass said that can have big impacts on arid regions, like the Mountain West, which has some of the driest states in the nation.

“If you’re already starting out from a state that’s a little bit dry and then suddenly things get a lot drier, it can cause problems in other situations, too,” Pendergrass said.

Those problems range from agriculture concerns to water management and energy production.

“A flash drought could deplete reservoirs, affecting both water availability and hydropower generation capacity in places like the southwest United States, where water is highly managed,” the paper stated.

The paper also said that climate change is adding to the severity and frequency of droughts, and that more studies on flash droughts will be needed in the future.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada, the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.

Noah Glick is a former content director and host at KUNR Public Radio.
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