COLLEGE STATION – A Texas A&M University geography professor is developing a drought-prediction system that could benefit everyone from ranchers in South Texas to weekend gardeners in Kansas.
Steven Quiring has received a $486,000 award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop a robust soil-moisture dataset for the Great Plains, one of the country’s most fertile but fickle climate regions.
The Great Plains stretch from the Rio Grande to the Canadian border, Quiring says, and despite extremes in weather and sporadic but deadly periods of drought, the region’s annual agricultural production alone accounts for more than $40 billion a year. On the other hand, he says the 1988 drought accounted for a $30 billion loss in agribusiness. The ability to pinpoint the moisture in the soil at any given time and place will help scientists better predict drought conditions and take steps to lessen its effects.
The content of moisture in the soil plays a critical role, Quiring says, in the global carbon cycle, and in weather and climate patterns. Drier soil means less moisture escapes into the atmosphere, triggering more radiant heat returned to the soil and exacerbating already dry conditions. “In other words, drought begets drought.”
Soil characteristics such as compactness, vegetation, and the angle of slopes and subsequent run-off further complicate the picture. “Knowing the amount of moisture in the soil at any given time is one of the keys to predicting oncoming droughts,” Quiring says.
Quiring explains that systematically gathering soil-moisture information varies across the region. “We have scattered observation stations, but by building a common dataset that covers a vast expanse gives us the tools to monitor drought conditions across the entire region.”
Quiring proposes to collect and perform quality control on existing observation stations, something that has never been done. The collected data will also be used to help calibrate and validate estimates of soil-moisture content made from satellites and global climate models.
The soil moisture database will be available to the worldwide community, and the applications are innumerable. “The agricultural, recreational, and land and water management enterprises are obvious beneficiaries,” the Texas A&M professor says. But the application will also be useful to scientists in numerous disciplines as well as agencies such as NASA and national climate modeling centers. Quiring also sees a global benefit. “This approach can be adapted to local and regional areas around the world,” he notes.
The five-year study also gives Texas A&M students a unique opportunity to develop research projects in drought monitoring and forecasting. In addition, Quiring will teach a freshman seminar class on drought science and develop a learning community devoted to the subject.
“These measures involve students in one of the grand challenges facing society today,” he says.
According to the NSF, the Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program offers the organization’s most prestigious awards. The grants, such as the one Quiring has received, support young teacher-scholars across the country who show the most promise in integrating research with educational opportunities. Quiring has also received teaching awards from The Association of Former Students and was selected as a Montague Scholar by the Center for Teaching Excellence. He currently teaches a popular course, “Planet Earth,” and conducts research in hydroclimatology and applied climatology. He also has a project funded by the Department of Energy that examines the long-term risk of hurricane winds and surge to the U.S. electrical infrastructure.