Coping with Drought

By Meagan Knowlton

Carrie Furman is in a long term-relationship, and she has no plans of breaking it off.

Furman works as an anthropologist in the University of Georgia’s Crop and Soil Sciences Department. She and a team of researchers associated with the Southeast Climate Consortium (SECC), including the principal investigator, Mark Boudreau, have just completed a research project on developing a weather and climate information system that would help African American farmers in the Southeast prepare for drought.

Investigator Carrie Furman interviews a Southeastern farmer to understand perceptions of drought and climate information.
Image credit: Carrie Furman.

When asked why she thinks it is important to communicate climate and drought information to farmers, she responds, “When you’re sitting down talking to a farmer, you get the perception that farming is risky and decisions are made based on a wide variety of factors. But if drought information can inform this decision making process, even slightly, it could help them plan a little better.”

Furman explains that after laying down the foundations of a relationship with groups of minority farmers, her team intends to continue working on bringing information to the farmers that can help them make decisions for the future. Now that they have established personal connections with the farmers, it will be easier to understand how to tailor climate information to fit the farmers’ needs, and how to incorporate the farmers’ experiences back into the science.

The reason drought and climate information could help these farmers, as well as many others across the country? The United States Department of Agriculture declared that the drought of Summer 2012 constituted the largest natural disaster area to occur in the country’s
recent history. Moreover, extreme events like drought may only increase in the coming years.

An Old Concern, a New Threat

Climate and drought forecasts can help farmers in the Southeast make plans for the future success of their crops.
Image credit: Carrie Furman.

Today, drought is ever-present, and this summer has shown us just how deadly drought can be. Drought and abnormally dry conditions struck 80% of the continental U.S., according to the National Drought Monitor.

Furthermore, experts from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have stated in a 2012 Special Report that extreme events may increase in the future. Their special report on extreme events says, “A changing climate leads to changes in frequency, intensity, spatial extent, duration, and timing of extreme weather and climate events, and can result in unprecedented extreme weather and climate events.”

Planning our response to the coming drought is becoming increasingly vital.

“Often, we don’t respond to drought till we’re in crisis mode,” says Chad McNutt, of the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS), an inter-agency collaborative working to develop regional drought early warning information systems across the country.

If decision-makers were able to make better decisions relating to drought for their businesses or municipalities by using climate information, then it is possible that we could be better prepared for the drought that lies ahead.

Interdisciplinary research allows us to improve our understanding of all the variables involved in drought planning. An initiative called “Coping with Drought” (CWD), in support of the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS), funds research projects across the country on developing drought information that can help people make well-informed decisions. Drought and climate information include projections, predictions, and forecasts of future drought and climate conditions. Coping with Drought projects, funded by the NOAA Climate Program Office, work to illuminate the impacts of drought and ways in which we can protect ourselves from them.

This article highlights three CWD projects that illustrate the ways in which researchers overcome hurdles to communicating drought information, so that instead of merely responding to drought, we can actually prepare for it.

Defining Drought

Chad McNutt of NIDIS says that drought is a difficult phenomenon to define.

“Drought is a unique natural hazard. The impacts slowly evolve, and because of that, people tend to be complacent about it."

There are many different kinds of drought, including agricultural, hydrological, and socioeconomic drought, meaning that drought is defined differently based on the context. Drought is also defined differently based on the location and the time scale. Drought in an arid region, such as the Southwestern U.S., presents differently than drought in a wetter region, such as the Southeast.

A simplified definition of drought, McNutt says, is the state in which there is insufficient water to “meet the needs.” These needs include agriculture, drinking water, industry, hydropower, or any use of water that is critical to the successful operations of our country.

“Whenever you can’t meet those needs,” McNutt continues, “you have impacts. If you don’t have a good handle on impacts, it’s hard to respond. Impacts are critical to understanding how drought is evolving.”

The impacts that drought is associated with are familiar ones: failed crops, rangeland dessication, wild fires, decreased hydropower, drinking water shortages, etc. Drought also causes social impacts that are not so obvious: job loss, declines in community mental health, and threats to public health due to low water levels. Ecosystem impacts are also important to consider. For example, reduced freshwater flow in the Apalachicola Bay is causing oyster ecosystems to die off, leading to decreased productivity in the oyster industry. Drought plays a substantial role in this reduction of freshwater flow.

Researchers at the University of Arizona are working to find solutions for drought-stricken Native American lands in Arizona.
Photo courtesy of Alison Meadow, University of Arizona.

According to McNutt, we have to develop a sense of trust between stakeholders and scientists. The more transparent scientists are when they release climate information, the more stakeholders will understand it.

“The problem is really,” says McNutt, pausing to find the right words, “[the stakeholders] don’t have an understanding of how the information was put together, and there’s not trust [of the drought information].” But transparency is not the only solution to the problem of getting stakeholders to use climate information. Scientists need to build relationships with stakeholders in order to build the kind of trust that will overcome cultural, political, and socioeconomic barriers to drought mitigation activities. The question for researchers becomes: how do we generate that trust?

Bringing Drought Home

Mike Crimmins, a researcher at the University of Arizona, has found that we must consider the local context relating to drought in order to successfully incorporate scientific information into drought plans. This is especially true on the reservations of the Hopi Tribe and Navajo Nation, which are located adjacent to each other in Arizona and part of New Mexico.

The Hopi and Navajo have been suffering from drought conditions for more than a decade, and the strain on vegetation and water sources is threatening their agricultural and ecosystem activities. To foster better drought preparation in these nations, Crimmins and a group of his colleagues at the University of Arizona received funding to help the Hopi and Navajo implement better monitoring systems on their reservations.

“Native American groups manage their reservations for long term sustainability out of complete necessity,” Crimmins says. “Most of us who move all over the place don’t have that connection to places. But for [the Hopi and Navajo], it’s all they have.”

Crimmins and his team have found that talking with Native Americans about their experiences and stories about drought can provide information that is just as important as scientific data.

“We’re finding we need to rely on observations. What they’re observing is what they’re making decisions about—whether it’s lowering stocking rates or declaring disaster. The hard numbers need to be in context,” says Crimmins’ colleague Alison Meadow. She argues for the use of a “user needs assessment” that surveys the community members on what they need from drought information, to understand what is most important to them in water management.

In the end, the scientists find themselves learning from the stakeholders, rather than the other way around. Meadow explains, “We need to make sure that the climate information we are communicating to them fits into their ‘information use environment.’ It has to fit the types and scale of the decisions they’re making, all in a format that they can manage.”

In working with the Hopi and Navajo Nations, Meadow emphasizes the importance of building trust.

“They have to know they’ll get something useful out of the relationship,” she says. “But that’s important for everybody. This kind of work should be a collaborative process between communities and scientists.”

Making it Personal

Mark Svoboda, a climatologist and professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the Monitoring Program Area Leader for the National Drought Mitigation Center (NDMC), agrees that drought must be defined by its local context.

“Like most hazards,” he says, “drought doesn’t constrain itself within geopolitical boundaries. It can have very large spatial and temporal footprint compared to other hazards: drought can cover millions of square miles, and can last from weeks to months to years… Drought doesn’t get quite the respect it deserves because a lot of the time, you don’t know you’re in one.”

Using a Coping with Drought grant, Svoboda and others from the NDMC decided to incorporate stakeholder input into the production of their drought information. Instead of using a “loading-dock” strategy, he says, they did workshops with stakeholder groups to determine what climate information would be useful to them.

“One way of getting people to use drought and climate information is by giving them a way of feeling ownership over it—by getting their help developing it.”

This project became known as “Drought-Ready Communities.” In this program, Svoboda and the NDMC work with community members to understand how decision makers can use climate information to make better decisions about drought. They chose pilot communities in the Midwest with different backgrounds in water management.

After working with these community groups, Svoboda and his team developed a guidebook to teach people how to use drought forecasts in developing a drought plan for their community. By understanding the needs and concerns of people in different types of communities, the researchers were able to include content in the guidebook that would be usable for people in many types of communities.

As for the next steps of this project, the team has reached out to an established entity in the planning field, the American Planning Association, to develop and publish a resource toolbox that will help people apply “Drought-Ready Communities” to their own hometown.

Where to Go From Here

Florida State Climatologist David Zierden explains ENSO cycles to local farmers at a workshop in Albany, Georgia.
Image credit: Carrie Furman.

Carrie Furman has a lot to work toward.

Furman and her coworkers formed a partnership with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, a civil-rights organization in the Southeast, to reach out to minority farmers. They discovered that simply getting into the community of minority farmers was the hardest, and possibly most important, part of their whole project.

It took two years to convince the Cooperative, a busy organization with many goals to meet for its partners, that this project is an important one to spend time on.

At the end of the grant they received for this project, Furman seems intent on not giving up this project’s forward momentum. “On this particular grant,” she explains, “we’ve only just reached the point where this boundary organization [the Federation of Southern Cooperatives] wants to work with us.”

In considering the task of communicating drought, it appears that the art of forming relationships is the key to the future of drought planning. Bonds between stakeholders, such as farmers, and the producers of climate predictions and forecasts operate hand-in-hand with drought decision-making.

The overarching theme of each study, whether it is with Native American reservations or Midwestern communities or Southeastern minority farmers, is that scientists must form relationships with stakeholders to ensure that: a) the best information gets to the decision makers, and b) decision makers understand how to use this information. Once the two parties have established a partnership, stakeholders will be better equipped to tell scientists about their needs and concerns relating to drought, and scientists will be able to give them the right kind of information to make decisions about those needs. Partnerships provide one solution to the question of building trust. When the trust is established between stakeholders/decision makers and scientists, climate information can be better applied to the types of questions about drought that exist within local cultural, political, and socioeconomic contexts.

The lessons Furman has learned over the course of this study have taught her to be patient, and to allow the relationship to govern the process.

“Projects in the future need to operate with the knowledge that these are ‘process’ projects. It can take years to get a relationship started.”

In the face of recent drought, relationships like these are worth the investment.

Related Link:


Dr. Nancy Beller-Simms
Program Manager, SARP- Extreme Events, SARP - Coping with Drought in Support of NIDIS, NIDIS/SARP Drought Risk Management Research Center
P: 1 (301) 734-1205
F: 1 (301) 713-0518


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