‘Mother Nature will always have the final say’ but UT researchers look for better ways to study drought


AUSTIN (KXAN) — Geoscientists at the University of Texas think they’ve locked in on a way to analyze droughts more thoroughly than the current standard.

Researchers say this is important for policymakers to try to determine how a changing environment will impact our water resources.

Data researchers in the UT’s Department of Geosciences released a new study in the Journal of Hydrology, showing that one of the worst droughts ever recorded in Texas history was far worse than previously thought.

The 2011 drought caused wildfires in parts of the state, like the Bastrop County Complex fire, $7 billion in losses to crops and livestock, power outage issues and depleted water reserves.

Craig Daniel, a long-time rancher in Briggs remembers that severe drought.

“I’m on my third drought and second ice storm,” said Daniel. “We would be a lot better if we had a lot more information, because when the last drought hit, hay started at $50 a barrel and ended up at $200 in some places.”

Daniel says not only did the price of hay go up, but he was having to use more feed because there wasn’t any grass for his animals to eat. Water from the nearby wells was also scarce.

“In a way, it keeps it interesting, but it also ages you,” said Daniel. “When you start sitting there and thinking how are you going to pay the bills and keep your cattle.”

“With the tools we have, we can see things differently from the traditional method,” University of Texas geosciences professor Dr. Zong-Liang Yang said.

Yang is trying to go beyond the U.S. Drought Monitor’s standard.

While the U.S Drought Monitor does model soil moisture, UT scientists say they were able to do it with greater detail and accuracy with their data analysis and modeling tools.

The U.S. Drought Monitor (USDM) is responsible for measuring drought conditions throughout the country and puts the drought conditions into categories: Abnormally dry (not drought), Moderate Drought (D1), Severe Drought (D2), Extreme Drought (D3), and Exceptional Drought (D4).

UT used soil-moisture data gathered from gravity and microwave sensors on satellites to measure the 2011 drought. The UT model (top) showed that the drought was more severe and longer-lasting than the U.S. Drought Monitor (below).

University of Texas Jackson School of Geoscience.

Researchers are pushing to make the UT model the standard across the nation.

“Anything that would give us a little bit of a heads up is always good,” Daniel said. “No matter if you do everything right in your life out here, Mother Nature will always have the final say.”

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