OU researchers studying science behind flash droughts

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NORMAN, Okla. (KFOR) – Oklahoma weather is known for being a little wild, but now researchers at the University of Oklahoma are now looking into flash droughts.

Flash droughts are rapidly developing, unexpected periods of drought that can cause severe impacts to agricultural and ecological system.

“Given that flash droughts can develop in only a few weeks, they create impacts on agriculture that are difficult to prepare for and mitigate,” said Jordan Christian, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oklahoma and the lead author of a study published in the journal Nature Communications. “Even when environmental conditions seem unfavorable for rapid drought development, a persistent, multi-week lack of rainfall coupled with hot weather can create flash drought development with its associated impacts.”

Recently, researchers at the University of Oklahoma began looking into the global distribution, trends, and drivers of flash droughts.

“The onset and timing of flash drought is a critical component to agricultural impacts, as flash drought can drastically reduce crop yields and lead to severe economic losses and potentially disrupt food security,” said Jeffrey Basara, an associate professor in both the School of Meteorology in the College of Atmospheric and Geographic Sciences and the School of Civil Engineering and Environmental Sciences in the Gallogly College of Engineering at OU. “These impacts can have cascading effects, including increased risk for wildfires, depletion of water resources, reduction of air quality and decreased food security.”

Organizers say that while American farmers can often mitigate some of the effects of a flash drought, other parts of the world are not as fortunate.

“This study is really important because although here in the U.S. we can often mitigate some of the effects with irrigation and other tools, a number of these types of events happen in places where they can’t be mitigated,” he added. “When that happens in areas dependent on subsistence living, where agricultural production is needed to survive, these types of events can be really devastating for the local system and create a lot of socioeconomic turmoil.”

The study identifies global “hotspots” for flash drought from 1980 through 2015. Of the 15 locations analyzed, eight were identified as having experienced both the most flash drought occurrences for their regions, and as being locations with at least 20% of their total land areas used for agricultural production.

“What’s interesting about flash droughts is they do have some preferential zones around the word,” Basara said. “One of the more interesting aspects of this particular work is that we were able to start to identify these zones. We often associate drought with a lack of rainfall. For these flash drought events, about half of the contributing factor is a lack of rainfall, the other half is what we call ‘hostile layer mass’ – it gets really hot and dry.”

The research team describes these regions as including the “Corn Belt” across the midwestern United States, barley production in the Iberian Peninsula, the wheat belt in western Russia, wheat production in Asia Minor, rice-producing regions in India and the Indochinese Peninsula, maize production in northeastern China, and millet and sorghum production across the Sahel.

Officials say the weather in one part of the world can have a major impact on lives across the globe.

Christian led a study published in Environmental Research Letters in 2020 that looked at the impact of a major heatwave in Russia in 2010. Preceding that heatwave was a flash drought. The impact of those weather events led to the decimation of Russia’s wheat crop, so much so that Russia stopped exporting.

“Russia’s biggest wheat importer were countries in the Middle East, so the price of grain went through the roof in the Middle East,” Basara said. “The social unrest of the Arab Spring was created, in part, because of the unusually high grain prices and the socioeconomic turmoil those prices caused. That ripple effect was caused by a flash drought in one part of the work that affected an entirely other portion of the world.”

“As we go into a changing climate system, as we have population growth and food security issues, this becomes one of those topics that’s important because of its really severe impact on agriculture and water resources,” he added. “It has cascading impacts like wildfires and more. If we can better understand these flash droughts, we might have a better understanding of their predictability and then we can better plan for these types of events.”

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