Drought information to be more predictive and versatile for a variety of users

December 8, 2008

Odd as it may seem given that a considerable swath of Indiana flooded this spring, parts of the state were almost dry enough in September to start using the “D” word before Hurricane Ike sent a spate of rain north.

Drought, said Dev Niyogi, a Purdue earth and atmospheric sciences and agronomy assistant professor and the Indiana State Climatologist, can sneak up on you slowly and your outlook on it when it arrives may depend on where you live, what you do for a living, or even your weekend plans. One person’s worrisome dry spell can be a baseball fan’s stretch of good weather.

The complexity of drought triggers, conditions and impact has Niyogi and Purdue colleagues, including a team from the Rosen Center for Advanced Computing, working on new way of tailoring drought-related information for a variety of users and on a more localized basis. DRInet, funded by the National Science Foundation, will be a Web-enabled system for accessing data related to the onset of drought and its impacts across disciplines and domains, along with tools to probe, integrate and visualize that data to create new knowledge and aid decision making in near real time.

The system also will make use of the TeraGrid, the world's largest open science computing network, which is funded by the NSF, too. Purdue through the Rosen Center, the research and discovery computing arm of Information Technology at Purdue (ITaP), is a TeraGrid partner and resource provider.

Carol Song, a senior research scientist at the Rosen Center, a principal investigator on the DRInet project and the Purdue TeraGrid leader, leads the cyberinfrastructure development for DRInet.

“The technology piece for this project will ramp up quickly because we are able to use the data and Web technologies developed at Purdue in a number of NSF-funded projects including the TeraGrid and nanoHUB.org,” Song said. “We will extend the software to incorporate drought information management and dissemination, and provide a community Web space to share data, visual products and knowledge to improve understanding and aid decision making.”

Song, Niyogi and colleagues envision a prototype drought knowledge generator resulting from the three-year project that can be used by, among others, climatologists, hydrologists and other researchers alongside farmers, water system managers, businesses, economists, and local, state and national policy makers.

“This is a mix of research, as well as an applied aspect,” said Niyogi, whose own research focuses, in part, on extreme weather events such as storms, floods and droughts.

Niyogi and colleagues said the intent is to expand on, rather than replicate, other drought-related research efforts and the active online community portal U.S. Drought Monitor, which takes more of a national view and tends not to dip below the state level in its analyses.

“(U.S. Drought Monitor) gives you very general information,” said Purdue Professor Indrajeet Chaubey, who is looking at the impact of drought on water quality as part of the DRInet project. “It doesn’t give you the specific information we hope to provide.”

“There are lots of things we want to know,” added Chaubey, an agricultural and biological engineering and earth and atmospheric sciences professor. “The impacts of drought are under-examined now. I think there’s a need for tools that people can use to examine these type of problems.”

Rao Govindaraju, the Christopher B. and Susan S. Burke Professor of Civil Engineering, said resources like U.S. Drought Monitor focus on current conditions—not what could happen in the future given those conditions.

The goal is to make DRInet a more predictive tool, first by “hindcasting,” looking at past records to see what the system might have predicted versus what actually happened, and where it might need to be modified to yield accurate projections, Govindaraju said. DRInet will be something like an enhanced Geographic Information System for drought-related purposes, focused on synthesizing various types of data to gain an understanding of what is happening more than just mapping.

Niyogi said the researchers want to illuminate the broad impacts droughts may have in obvious areas like water supply and crop yields but also on less obvious things like air quality and human health. The picture might incorporate such things as the economic cost and the number of people affected as well.

“The cost of a drought can be more than you incur from a flooding event or a hurricane,” Govindaraju said.

That’s because droughts tend to happen, and have an impact, over much longer periods of time and much larger areas.

“It is an increasing concern, both floods and droughts, the two extremes,” Govindaraju added. “The way the climate system is projected, it seems we will have more frequent and severe events.”

Climate change predictions that anticipate more hydrological extremes, including droughts and floods, are one motivation behind DRInet. The nation’s possible shift from oil to biofuels—derived from crops on which drought can wreak havoc—only raises the stakes, Niyogi said.

Purdue was able to assemble the kind of interdisciplinary team that will be needed to get a picture of the complex web of factors involved in the onset of droughts and drought impacts, not to mention communicate the information to a mix of audiences.

For example, computer science professors Daniel Aliaga and Christoph Hoffmann will work on ways to visualize drought-related data in 2-D and 3-D. The goal is to help researchers make better sense of the data, but also to aid the non-scientific audience DRInet is intended to serve, said Aliaga, who will be probing the data for effects of drought in urban areas, for instance on land use patterns.

Meanwhile, Chaubey and his lab already have been developing mathematical models and high performance computing tools to study the impact of agricultural and other non-point pollution sources on water quality, for entire watersheds and under a variety of weather scenarios and time scales. The techniques can apply to examining drought.

The project also dovetails with existing Purdue efforts in cyberinfrastructure for environmental monitoring, such as the Purdue Environmental Observatory Data Portal, a gateway to environment-related data managed by Purdue that allows researchers and students to access the material without having to learn the underlying software technology. The environmental observatory portal also is a TeraGrid resource.

Other members of the DRInet team include Jacob Carlson, a data research scientist for the Purdue libraries, and Lan Zhao, a Rosen Center research scientist.

Purdue has a number of off-campus partners, such as the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska Lincoln, the National Weather and Climate Center and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration Central Region. The project also includes a variety of academic partners, including the University of Illinois, Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin, along with Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, Western Kentucky and the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, India.

Originally posted: December 8, 2008