Nebraska Engineering Fall, 2006
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UNL at Forefront of Drought Reseearch

Drought is an oft-overlooked natural disaster. It doesn’t cause immediate destruction like a tornado or hurricane; it’s subtle and enduring. Few people—even agriculture producers and policymakers— think about drought until one devastates a region’s economy and depletes its natural resources.

State climatologist Mark Svoboda said the first drought of the 2000s has been a wake-up call. It might even be the impetus for further development of drought mitigation tools, which are becoming University of Nebraska–Lincoln specialties.

Groundwater Monitoring Sensors
Byrav Ramamurthy, associate professor of computer science and engineering, and doctoral student Yuyan Xue are designing smart sensors that will be installed in 52 wells across the state to monitor groundwater levels. Through cellular phone or satellite phone technology, the sensors will provide real-time updates to state and national drought monitoring systems. Testing will begin this fall, and the network will be completed by fall 2007.

Most groundwater monitoring systems require someone to visit the well every few weeks or months and download the data to a laptop computer or similar device. This is a time-consuming, expensive process, Ramamurthy said.

“The objective of our project is to create an open platform which allows for multiple communication technologies, multiple sensors and multiple functionalities to be supported,” he said.

Other UNL researchers involved in the project are Mark Burbach, assistant geoscientist with the School of Natural Resources, and Cody Knutson, water resources scientist with the National Drought Mitigation Center. The project is funded by a $403,000 grant from the United States Department of Agriculture Risk Management Agency. Palmer Drought Index

For 41 years, the Palmer Drought Severity Index has been the standard tool for measuring soil moisture at a given location. Government agencies use the Palmer index to determine if, and when, to initiate drought relief programs.

While groundbreaking at the time of its development, the Palmer index’s shortcomings were apparent by the early 21st century. The Palmer index was based on empirically derived constants, which were used to set the index’s sensitivity to precipitation. Therefore, it was effective for monitoring drought in a specific location, but it wasn’t a reliable tool for comparison, said Steve Goddard, associate professor of computer science and engineering.

“The numbers had no meaning,” Goddard said. “A value of -16 might be the equivalent of a -4 somewhere else.”

Computer technology allowed 2003 graduate Nathan Wells to work with Goddard to revamp the Palmer index. Wells replaced the original empirical constants with dynamically calculated values. The values automatically calibrate the index so it performs the same in any location. His modification immediately became the new standard.

Online Drought Resources
National Agricultural Decision Support System
National Drought Mitigation Center
School of Natural Resources Water Center