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Drought center tapped to help predict civil unrest

Curt Arens Drought stricken corn field
DRIED UP: Drought and weather extremes can contribute to civil unrest in specific regions around the world, so the National Drought Mitigation Center recently received $1 million from the U.S. Air Force to develop a global composite drought indicator of potential hot spots as part of an early warning information system.
The National Drought Mitigation Center is working with the U.S. Air Force to forecast potential hot spots.

Weather and climate can contribute to civil unrest, especially in countries with little to no social safety nets, where people depend on subsistence farming to feed themselves and their families. The question is, can civil unrest be predicted along with the weather?

To begin answering that question, researchers at the National Drought Mitigation Center, based in the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s School of Natural Resources, received $1 million in funding from U.S. Air Force Weather this spring for the first phase of a bigger project.

The project, “Building a Global Composite Drought Indicator Hot Spot Early Warning and Information System,” is led by Mark Svoboda, director of the drought center. It began in March. The center is teaming up with others on campus, including Ross Miller, associate professor of political science; Tirthankar Roy, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering; and Brian Wardlow, director of the Center for Advanced Land Management Information Technologies.

In the first phase of work, the drought center will develop a global composite drought indicator, based on physical measurements of water availability such as precipitation, soil moisture, evapotranspiration and vegetation health. The center has extensive experience working with countries around the globe to construct composite drought indices, based on which data is available and which sectors are most vulnerable.

Socioeconomic indicators that describe vulnerability to drought will be incorporated as a next step. Machine learning techniques will help guide the team, along with feedback from key partners within the Air Force.

“Using multiple data sources and adapting to whatever is available for a country or region is consistent with the ‘convergence of evidence’ approach that the U.S. Drought Monitor is based on,” Svoboda said. “A key difference here, besides generating an operational global product for the first time, is that we may have to use remote-sensing data for countries that don’t have enough on-the-ground weather stations, or in countries where they don’t share data freely.

"We may also need to use innovative methods to come up with drought assessments in areas where the period of record is short or nonexistent. Drought is always a comparison to some normal, and there are places where we don’t have enough data to say what is normal.”

Svoboda said the next stage of work will be expanding to include more partners and examine more drought hot spots.

The National Drought Mitigation Center works extensively with United Nations agencies such as the World Meteorological Organization, the Convention to Combat Desertification, and the Food and Agriculture Organization, and with federal agencies in the U.S., including NASA, USDA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the U.S. Agency for International Development. This project is the drought center’s first foray into working with the Department of Defense.

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