DALLAS (UPI) — Drought is the wild card in planning for the nation’s future water needs but scientists are making strides in forecasting the costly dry spells.

It was during 1999’s severe drought in the East that the weekly U.S. Drought Monitor was introduced to the public at a White House briefing. A short while later the U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook became a fixture for those who monitor droughts.

Both were products of scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center and other federal agencies — pioneers in the very new field of long-range drought forecasting.

“We are one of the few agencies in the world that tries to forecast drought directly as opposed to just making long-range forecast of precipitation or temperatures,” said Douglas Lampe, a senior meteorologist at NOAA’s National Center for Environmental Predictions in Camp Springs, Md.

The U.S. Drought Monitor is posted each Thursday on the NOAA Web site (noaa.gov/climate) with a map indicating the most severe conditions. Each month the U.S. Seasonal Outlook takes a look at drought conditions during the next three and a half months in the future.

“I think we do a pretty good for the next few weeks or so but it gets real difficult beyond that, especially in the summer when there is a lot of randomness in the weather pattern,” he said.

Since their introduction to the public, the weekly monitor and seasonal outlook have become popular with farmers, firefighters, water users and other government agencies. “We have missed some, but we have had some successes too,” Lampe said.

The monitor is produced by the CPC, U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Neb., and NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center. The outlook is produced by the CPC.

“We here at the climate prediction center hope we can improve the forecasting of drought to the point where people can prepare a little better over the short term,” Lampe said. “There are things that you can do if you think the odds favor drought in the next few months whether you are a farmer or a consumer of water.”

In mid-June, extreme drought was reported in a large section of the West, including parts of New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Utah, Nevada and Arizona. Exceptional drought, the most severe, was present in small sections of Wyoming, Idaho Utah and Arizona. Moderate drought was even forecast in a section of Maine.

Spring rains and cool weather have delayed the onset of this year’s wildfire season, according to the forecasters at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. So far, the number of fires and acres burned are significantly below average. As of June, 29,376 fires had burned 969,239 acres, but the numbers are expected to climb.

Major fires are already burning in Arizona and New Mexico and the experts say much of the West is still expected to see an above normal fire season because of the long-term drought’s impact on the disease-infected trees and vegetation that fuel the blazes.

Weather forecasters don’t see the same fire danger in the forests of the Southeast where predicted hurricanes could bring additional moisture during the summer months.

Although drought has become routine in the West, the Northeast and Southeast regions have experienced dry spells in recent years, enforcing the message of many water experts that the future of fresh water should worry every American.

Robert M. Hirsch, deputy director of water for the U.S Geological Survey, noted that even Maine, which is historically a very wet state, has experienced serious drought during the past three years. Drought can occur anywhere.

The Eastern Seaboard was hit hard in 1999 and 2002 from the Carolinas through Virginia, Pennsylvania through New York to parts of New England. Conditions have improved this year with recent rains, but Hirsch said it shows that no part of the country is exempt.

“The pattern broke and now we are in a situation where those parts of the country are in much better shape because there has been above normal precipitation for quite a few months,” Hirsch noted.

Ben Dziegielewski, a professor of water resources at Southern Illinois University, said drought is a major factor in the management of future water resources. Drought can cover large regions of the nation and it can be costly for society and the environment.

“We have to have a strategy for dealing with droughts, especially some innovative method to recognize that droughts may become more frequent due to climate change,” he said.

Although the Great Lakes region is not officially suffering from drought, the mid-June Drought Monitor reports “abnormally dry” conditions in the Chicago area along Lake Michigan, which may be a harbinger of future climate in the area.

The Great Lakes could look like the South and Southwest by the end of the century due to global warning, according to a forward-looking report issued in April by the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Ecological Society of America.

Temperatures may increase as much as 18 degrees in summer and 13 degrees in winter, according to the scientists. The result will be a longer growing season for farmers but 20 percent less soil moisture with attendant erosion, reduced yields and other problems.

“We may think we’ll be able to take advantage of the warmer temperatures by going to the beach but the lake levels will be lower and there will be more beach closures,” said Michelle Wander, a soil scientist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

”’Additional reporting by Marcella Kreiter in Chicago.”’

Copyright 2003 by United Press International. All rights reserved.

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