Breakthrough research led by Auburn University professor fuels new product that forecasts long-term drought

Published: October 03, 2019
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Recently published climate research led by Sanjiv Kumar, a professor in Auburn University’s School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, has already provided the basis of a pioneering new outlook product that is capable of forecasting drought.

Kumar and his team published their findings in the May issue of the Journal of Climate Science.

In August, the Massachusetts-based Climate Impact Company introduced an innovative new forecasting product developed based on that research. An article and accompanying chart on the company’s website now exhibits the most likely dry or drought-prone areas in North America for meteorological autumn, or September, October and November. The article cites the soil reemergence process as its source, breaking down the science behind it.

“It is striking to see the speed at which basic climate science research can deliver a practical solution nationally and internationally—in this case, less than four months,” said Kumar, who leads Auburn University’s Climate, Water and Society, or CWS, Lab in the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences. “This development highlights the way in which basic climate research can fuel practical solutions world-wide.”

The researchers based their pivotal findings on a process called soil reemergence. The idea is that the memory of the land lies not just at its surface, but also beneath its surface; because of that, it can serve as a predictor of future water availability.

The Climate Impact Company, a meteorological and climate consulting organization that aims to change the way industry looks at the impact of weather and climate, is using a combination of deep- and shallow-layer soil moisture deficits as the basis of its new drought outlook product.

The collaborative research included Kumar’s work at Auburn along with Matt Newman of the Boulder, Colorado-based NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory, or ESRL, and his colleagues Yan Wang and Ben Livneh, also at the University of Colorado Boulder.  

Kumar, who joined the Auburn faculty in 2017, began working on the project in 2016, when he was a National Research Council associate at NOAA ESRL in Boulder.

Puneet Srivastava, director of the Auburn University Water Resources Center and an expert in water resources and climate variability problems, said Kumar and team were the first to challenge the conventional thinking that root-zone moisture anomalies last only a few months.

“They are demonstrating that greater memory, in the order of several months to over a year, in soil moisture anomalies exist in the layer immediately below the root zone, which has potential to enhance interannual-to-decadal variability in droughts,” said Srivastava, who was not involved in the study.

School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences Dean Janaki Alavalapati said the rapid development of a forecast product based on Kumar’s research affirms that the findings will significantly affect climate science in the years to come.

“The findings that Dr. Kumar and his team have made in this research represent a major breakthrough in terms of the role of the land in climate predictability science,” Alavalapati said. “This could result in substantially improved predictability of drought, which could positively impact the lives of people affected by drought each year and affect the decisions of natural resource managers and policymakers.”

(Written by Teri Greene)

The Auburn University School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences is a flagship institution for natural resources-based degrees including natural resource management, geospatial and environmental informatics, and sustainable biomaterials and packaging. The school is also the backbone to Alabama's $22 billion forest, wildlife and natural resources industry. Its mission is to create future professionals and leaders and to develop new knowledge and science-based solutions and share them with individuals, families, communities and industries so they can make informed decisions to advance their business and well-being.