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Understand and predict the severe drought events in the western United States and their influence on water resources and human health.

The western United States has experienced drought in recent years. In 2022, drought conditions were most severe in the States of California, Texas, Oregon, Nevada, Utah, and New Mexico. As reported in July 2022, more than 32 percent of land in western states was classified as experiencing extreme or exceptional drought.
Drought can adversely reduce the quantity of snowpack and streamflow available, thus greatly influencing the ecosystem, human activities, and human health through environmental influence and social and economic impacts.
This project aims to better understand and predict the severe drought events in the western United States and their impacts on water resources and human health, especially in Northern Utah. We seek collaborations from climate, hydrological, ecosystem, and health science. Our objectives are to 1) develop improved drought metrics based on the historical records and current conditions of the atmosphere, land, and plant available water for an effective drought prediction method; and 2) assess the drought impacts on human health, such as lung health of toxic dust caused by a drought in Great Salt Lake. The ultimate goal of the research is to provide effective drought prediction methods for the western United States and identify significant issues, thus making suggestions for essential decision-making.

Current Status

The western U.S. has faced drought in recent years, notably in states such as California, Texas, Oregon, Nevada, Utah, and New Mexico. In 2022, intense drought impacted over 32% of this area. These conditions limit water availability, impacting the environment, daily activities, and health due to environmental shifts and economic consequences. This project seeks to delve deeper into these droughts, with a specific focus on Northern Utah, by collaborating with experts in climate/weather, hydrology/ecology, and health. Our objectives are to: 1) Develop enhanced drought prediction tools drawing from historical and current data. 2) Investigate the impact of drought on human health, such as respiratory issues stemming from dust around the Great Salt Lake. Ultimately, we aim to refine drought forecasting for the western U.S. and underscore key concerns, assisting policymakers.

Project studies have confirmed that La Niña, characterized by a negative sea surface temperature anomaly in the central-eastern tropical Pacific, and the Madden–Julian Oscillation (MJO), an intraseasonal-scale phenomenon over the Indo-Pacific Ocean, both played roles in the droughts experienced in the western U.S. during the cold seasons (November to April) from 2020 to 2022. Research outcomes also noted that the North American Monsoon can affect the intensity of droughts during the warm season in the western U.S. These findings emphasize the significance of ENSO, MJO, and the North American Monsoon when forecasting droughts in the western U.S. The team also evaluated the methods of using satellite data for drought monitoring. On a local scale, the team determined that groundwater in headwater catchments is a powerful predictor of overall stream/runoff efficiency. They also found that the variability in groundwater storage is influenced by approximately four years of prior climate and weather conditions. Observations of the Great Salt Lake's elevation, area, and volume demonstrate a similar pattern, but trail groundwater changes by 1-2 years. This offers a method to predict the potential water supply to the lake, as well as the extent of its exposed area. Using hospital records, meteorological data, and information on the conditions of the Great Salt Lake, team members are researching the impacts of droughts on human health. Overall, research results suggest a connection between regional droughts, local groundwater storage, and water delivery to the lake, which results in lower lake levels and a larger total area of potential dust sources impacting human health.


Pye, M. and Z. Pu, 2024: Synoptic-scale Circulation of the Western United States Drought of 2021 and 2022. Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology. (To be Submitted).

Hou, Z., and Pu, Z. (2023) Assessing CYGNSS Satellite Soil Moisture Data for Drought Monitoring with Multiple Datasets and Indicators. Remote Sensing, 2024, 16(1), 116;

Stone, L., Strong, C., Bai, H., Reichler, T., McCabe, G., Brooks, P.D. (2023) Atlantic-Pacific influence on Western US hydroclimate and water resources, npj Climate and Atmospheric Science 6(1):139 DOI:10.1038/s41612-023-00471-7

Wolf, M., Jamison, L.R., Solomon, D.K., Strong, S., Brooks, P.D. (2023) Multi-year Climatic Controls on Groundwater Storage in Seasonally Snow-Covered Headwater Catchments, Water Resources Research 59 (6), e2022WR033394


College of Mines and Earth Sciences
Atmospheric Sciences
Project Owner

College of Mines and Earth Sciences
Geology & Geophysics

College of Nursing

Project Info

Funded Project Amount

Drought; Hydrology; Plant available water; Human health.

Project Status
Funded 2023
Last Updated: 9/1/21