In July 2002, CLIMAS launched the El Niño-Drought Initiative (END InSight) as a rapid response to stakeholder needs for climate information about ongoing drought and forecasted El Niño impacts in Arizona and New Mexico.
The project incorporated insights from previous research on the use of El Niño information by decision makers, including a pilot project conducted by NOAA in California during the 1997-98 El Niño. The information gathered during the course of the project will be translated into a series of articles, reports, scholarly papers, and web pages designed to increase public understanding of climate and its impacts in the Southwest and to encourage new research and development activities that result in more and better climate information and forecasts.
At the onset of the project, CLIMAS invited 35 stakeholders from different sectors in Arizona and New Mexico to receive and evaluate information products over the course of a year. The participants received monthly climate packets, including summaries of recent conditions, long-range forecasts, and background materials on drought, El Niño, and other special topics. The participants provided feedback on the packet materials through a monthly questionnaire and telephone interviews, which shaped what information stakeholders want and how to present the information.
To reach a wider audience, CLIMAS began publishing the monthly climate information generated for stakeholders during the project on our public website and providing climate summaries to state legislators. The success of this product prompted CLIMAS to continue monthly publications, which became the project the Southwest Climate Outlook (SWCO).
Over the centuries, drought has uprooted sophisticated cultures residing in what we now call the southwestern United States. For example, the ancestors of the Pueblo people, the Anasazi, abandoned dozens of multistoried structures in the Four Corners area of the Southwest during a “Great Drought” that stretched across the turn of the 13th Century.
Tree-ring records and other natural archives reveal that the Southwest has regularly seen dry periods lasting as long as 10-20 years. While the 20th century did not see decade-long "megadroughts," severe drought in the early 1900s and in the 1950s caused devastating impacts on people in Arizona and New Mexico.
According to some climate experts, the most recent drought began in parts of the Southwest as early as 1996. Dry conditions have been worsening since that time; by the summer of 2002 most of Arizona and New Mexico were considered to be in "extreme" drought. Arizona was declared a drought disaster area on May 17, 2002 by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ann M. Veneman. The National Climatic Data Center observed in June 2002 that the Rio Grande’s streamflow in New Mexico was lower than it had ever been before based on the 102-year instrumental record.
People living in rural areas have suffered the most from dwindling water supplies, but as the drought continues larger cities may expect water shortages as well. Drought has already had devastating impacts on southwestern ecosystems—from large wildfires to the die-off of ponderosa pine and piñon juniper forests due to combined stress of insect infestation and lack of moisture.
While the drought was worsening in the summer of 2002, forecasters began to notice unusually high sea surface temperatures in the eastern Pacific, the telltale sign of El Niño’s arrival. This climatic pattern is associated with greater rainfall in the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico.
However, even a strong El Niño only increases the probability of precipitation in the Southwest—it does not guarantee it—so southwestern climatologists do not view El Niño as a panacea for the drought.
We invited a group of about 35 stakeholders from throughout Arizona and New Mexico to participate in a yearlong project (July 2002-July 2003) to improve the use and usability of climate information. Participants in the project included land, wildlife, and water resource managers; agricultural extension agents; fire managers; ranchers; environmental organizations; members of the media and tourism sectors; community development specialists; and energy sector representatives.
Each month the CLIMAS team created an information packet based on climate and forecast products from our partner agencies:
Each packet contained roughly 20 climate products, including
Recent conditions: temperature, precipitation, drought status, reservoir levels, and snowpack
Monthly-to-seasonal forecasts: temperature, precipitation, PDSI and drought outlook, fire, streamflow, hazards assessment, and ENSO
"Focus" pages: special topics such as forecast interpretation, the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), floods, monsoon patterns, and tropical storms
We provided value-added information to help stakeholders interpret each climate product. Each packet also included an executive summary and newsletter with background articles that complement the focus page topics.
In the first half of the project, monthly surveys asked participants to review and rate approximately 20 climate products according to:
During the latter half of the project short questionnaires and telephone interviews were used to refine the initial data gathered. We are analyzing this information to determine how usable and understandable the materials are that we send out and we might improve the information we send.
We maintained contacts with news media throughout the project to assure that media representatives and the public received timely information about changing drought conditions and El Niño impacts.
Throughout the project, we convened a series of press briefings in Tucson, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and Phoenix in conjunction with SAHRA (the NSF Science & Technology Center for Sustainability of semi-Arid Hydrology and Riparian Areas). The briefings, which have continued beyond the one-year project, provide an opportunity for media representatives to interact directly with experts in climatology, meteorology, hydrology, ecology, or other appropriate fields and obtain the latest information, ask questions, and discuss potential implications at regional and local levels.
More generally, we have kept the lines of communication open with the media to provide regionally relevant expert insight, analysis, and synthesis of recent conditions, forecasts, and potential impacts.
We developed a database of recent newspaper reports regarding weather and climate in the Southwest, gleaned from local, regional, and national news sources. This activity allows us to trace changes in the conciseness, accuracy, breadth, and subject matter that makes it into published coverage of climate forecasts, conditions, and impacts, and gain insight into issues of concern to the public in our region.
We sent out monthly highlights of climate conditions, forecasts, and events to legislators and other concerned public representatives. These materials enable our representatives to remain up-to-date on the latest information and alert them to potential areas of concern. Upon request, we provided additional information to them and tried to provide answers to any questions.