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Drought Probability?

March 9, 2013
By: Ben Potter, Social Media and Innovation Editor google + 
Taming Mother Nature

New study uses soil moisture deficits for better analysis

The 2012 drought was an exceptional case, but drought dials up crop damage every year—about $8 billion worth in an average year, in fact. Researchers are now busy trying to find better ways to analyze and monitor drought.

For example, researchers at Oklahoma State University (OSU) are creating a calendar of seasonal drought patterns to help farmers synchronize the growth of their crops with those periods of time when drought is less likely.

The challenge lies with how drought is calculated. Researchers tend to use common atmospheric data such as temperature and rainfall. But these measurements do not factor an important component of drought.

"Atmospheric variables do not take into account soil moisture," says Tyson Ochsner, OSU assistant professor of applied soil physics and lead author of the study. "Soil moisture can provide an important buffer against short-term precipitation deficits."

Ochsner and his co-authors tapped into 15 years of soil-moisture measurements from eight locations across Oklahoma to calculate soil water deficits and analyze days on which dry conditions would be most likely. They found that soil-moisture deficits more successfully predicted water-stressed plants than atmospheric analysis.

Researchers calculated deficits by determining the difference between the soil’s water-holding capacity and actual water content. They determined a threshold when plants would experience stress from lack of water. Each threshold was individually calculated because of the specific soil characteristics at each site.

The researchers also found that previous attempts to use atmospheric data often underestimated drought conditions. They hope to use soil water data whenever it’s available to better paint a picture of the days on which drought conditions are most likely.

Where this data is not available, Ochsner is looking into changes to atmospheric predictions to make them more accurate. Further research is needed to optimize atmospheric calculations and provide more accurate analysis for fields without access to soil-water data, he says.

Stubborn soil-water deficits. Got a soil water deficit on your farm? It might not go away easily, even with multiple soaking rains. Iowa State University ag meteorologist Elwynn Taylor serves up the following hypothetical to illustrate the issue.

Assume that your field suffered severe droughts and there is no available water in the rooting zone, around 5' deep. If you assume the field has a water-carrying capacity of about 2" per foot, even a nice, soaking, 1" rainstorm isn’t going to penetrate 5' into the soil—not even close.

"Let’s say an inch of rain falls, none runs off, and it all soaks in," Taylor says. "The soil has mud in the top 3" for a few hours, but it soaks down about 6". After a day or so, half the water in inch-6 wicks into inch-7. In another day, half the water in inch-7 wicks into inch-8. That’s about as

far as it goes."

In other words, any rainfall on drought-stressed ground is good, but the road to total replenishment might be a longer process than some realize.

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FEATURED IN: Farm Journal - March 2013



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