By Phil Alderman
From left to right: Dr. Phil Alderman, students Anna Zander, Andrew Baird, Joanna Quiah, and Dr. Alex Ruane
The Southern Great Plains of the United States are known for high climate variability, including large swings in annual precipitation and cycles of high rainfall and severe drought. This variability has a profound impact on agriculture and the rural economies that depend on it due to the risk of potentially devastating weather- and climate-related stresses. Within this temporal variability is substantial spatial variability in the severity and timing of drought. In Oklahoma in 2016, for example, annual rainfall ranged between 8 inches above and 8 inches below normal depending on location within the state. Farm- to regional-scale planning, depends on accurately quantifying the risk to agriculture caused by such variability.
To address this issue, Dr. Phillip Alderman and several of his students from Oklahoma State University are collaborating with Dr. Alexander Ruane from NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) and Agricultural Model Intercomparison and Improvement Project (AgMIP) Science Coordinator on a project entitled Spatiotemporal precipication estimates for quantifying agricultural drought risk. The project is supported by the Oklahoma NASA EPSCoR Research Initiation Grant, a program designed to assist Oklahoma researchers in forging collaborations with counterparts at NASA centers. The goal of the project is to better understand how rainfall patterns over space and time pose a risk to different agricultural systems. A key component of the effort is to identify optimal methods for estimating rainfall over space and time based on ground-based measurements from the Oklahoma Mesonet (a world-class weather network) and NASA satellite-derived data products.
Recently Dr. Alderman and three of his students from traveled to NASA GISS in New York, NY to meet with Dr. Ruane. The primary purposes of the trip were to collaboratively review preliminary results with Dr. Ruane and to give Dr. Alderman’s students a glimpse of the breadth and depth of work going on through the NASA GISS Climate Impacts group and AgMIP, which is coordinated out of NASA GISS and the Columbia University Center for Climate Systems Research.
The collaboration between Alderman and Ruane began several years ago when the two met at the 3rd AgMIP Global Workshop in Rome, Italy in October 2012. Since that time they worked together on the AgMIP Wheat Team, and brainstormed ideas for collaborative research related to ground-truthing of remotely-sensed weather data products and geospatial weather generation. Because of these ongoing interactions, when the opportunity came for Dr. Alderman to pursue a project under the Oklahoma NASA EPSCoR Research Initiation Grant program, they were able to hit the ground running.
The results of the project will advance agroclimatological research by assessing the accuracy of existing mesoscale climate data products, evaluating the benefit of various meteorological station densities in agricultural regions, and using agricultural models to estimate differences between products, station densities, and methodological approaches. During the recent trip, the project team and Dr. Ruane co-reviewed comparisons of the data products and planned out next steps for running crop model simulations across Oklahoma and comparing results to historical trends.
In addition to making significant strides ahead in terms of research activities, the trip was also an important eye-opening experience for Dr. Alderman’s students. “Working for NASA has always been a dream of mine and becoming an astronaut is a big part of that dream,” said Andrew Baird, a Plant and Soil Sciences senior. While acknowledging the low odds of becoming an astronaut, he expressed appreciation for the opportunity to explore other ways of being involved in NASA research. “A big highlight of the last trip for me was being able to meet Dr. Cynthia Rosenzweig (AgMIP Co-PI)… knowing that she is a fellow agronomist and is able to play a large part in the research being conducted at NASA GISS.”
“I was so inspired by the innovative and brilliant scientists who use their work to help protect and improve life on our planet,” said Joanna Quiah, a Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering sophomore. Anna Zander, a Plant and Soil Sciences senior, was similarly affected. “Hearing about [Dr. Ruane and Dr. Rosenzweig’s] research and the way they are active in understanding the effects of climate change has renewed my desire to be involved in research.” All three students have voiced an interest in pursuing careers in STEM research in the future.