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Atmospheric scientist explores new drought prediction models

  • Atmospheric scientist explores new drought prediction models
  • NOAA-funded UH project targets drought predictability amid rising climate concerns.

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University of Houston
Established in 1927, the University of Houston empowers students in their pursuit of learning, discovery, leadership and engagement.

As drought conditions become more frequent, the University of Houston is leading a study to gain a better understanding of what causes these periods of dry weather with a goal of predicting when drought conditions will occur.

Honghai Zhang, assistant professor of tropical climate dynamics and global hydrological cycle in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, received a three-year, $498,599 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Program Office’s Modeling, Analysis, Predictions And Projections (MAPP) Program and National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS). The funding supports his study of moisture anomalies as monitors and predictors of droughts in the southwestern United States, including Houston.

Zhang will analyze variations in precipitation and moisture in the region, looking closely at the potential for moisture from the tropical Pacific as a possible predictor. He is focused on developing a model that can monitor and predict drought conditions.

“In this project, we’re looking at how moisture variations in the tropical Pacific contributed to droughts in the southwest,” said Zhang. “We want to be able to predict droughts one to two seasons ahead.”

Role of moisture pathways in summer droughts

Zhang, a UH College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics faculty member, wants to dig deeper into models that are part of the North American Multi-Model Ensemble (NMME) system. He is working to find how moisture pathways could contribute to the prediction of summer droughts.

Moisture pathways, the atmospheric routes through which water vapor is transported, play a crucial role in the global water cycle and can influence weather patterns and precipitation.

Using the NMME’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory Forecast-oriented Low Ocean Resolution (FLOR) model, Zhang found a correlation between tropical Pacific Ocean activity and atmospheric moisture and precipitation in the southwest.

“The FLOR model was used to show how moisture variations in the summer can be more important than atmospheric circulation anomalies,” said Zhang. “The model supported the theory that tropical Pacific activity can influence summer precipitation fluctuations in the southwest through moisture pathways.”

A new model within the NMME system, the Seamless System for Prediction and EArth System (SPEAR), has replaced FLOR. Zhang is comparing regional simulations from both models to see if the results are identical.

“We want to see if the SPEAR model can also simulate the same moisture pathway in the same region,” said Zhang.

Land-based and satellite data collection

For his project, Zhang is collecting and analyzing data from land-based monitors and satellites. Sensors on land, such as rain gauges and soil moisture probes, provide essential real-time information. Satellite data offers a broader perspective by capturing spatial distribution of moisture levels while also collecting data in remote areas.

“We are using satellite data of moisture activity from the oceans as a predictor of drought conditions,” said Zhang. “It is a key ingredient in the model under development.”

Zhang is contributing to the development of NOAA’s National Integrated Drought Information System Drought Early Warning System in the southwest. His work will increase the probability of expanding U.S. Drought Monitor System indicators based on land and soil, and creating drought predictors based on atmospheric moisture data collected from satellites.

Promoting STEM opportunities for students

Zhang will introduce high school students to his research through UH’s STEM Zone Saturday Program.

“We’re working with the UH STEM Center to recruit undergraduate students and local high school students to get them interested in STEM through this project,” said Zhang. “We want to inspire them by showing them how this research can affect everyday life.”

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