New website tracks corn drought stress

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (July 26, 2012) -- State and federal agriculture agencies are getting a faster view of areas where corn crops are in distress and at higher resolution than was previously available using tools developed at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH). 

Using data from NASA satellites and NOAA weather radar plugged into a widely-used crop model, a new website providesdaily updates on rain, temperature, sunshine and the impact those elementshave on corn growing in Alabama, Georgia and Florida, according to CameronHandyside, a research engineer in UAH's Earth System Science Center.

"The USDA has agents in the field every week gathering information about crop stress," Handyside said. "We hope we can help them identify hot spots faster. With the satellite data, the model starts to see crop stress days before things begin to wilt. We can provide more precise information for crop insurance and drought relief efforts."

While weekly drought and crop stress data have been available on a county-by-county basis, the new model provides daily updates for 36,000 grid points in the three states. With each grid point only 2.8 miles on each side, that gives officials better tools for identifying when one portion or slice of a county is harder hit by drought than the rest of that county.

Using National Weather Service 8-day weather forecasts, the model also predicts how crop stress might evolve over the coming week. The UAHuntsville model is unique as the only drought monitoring system that also tracks and forecasts drought stress on plants.

Funded by a NASA grant, the new tools were developed, in part, to determine how data from NASA's Earth-observing satellites might best be used to solve problems on the ground. With the pilot program showing the possible benefits on only one crop in a small area, the UAH team hopes now to expand to corn and other crops over the rest of the country.

"We have the ability to run crop models for everything from wheat to Cassava (tapioca)," Handyside said. "Running the big crops like cotton, soybeans and wheat would not be a problem."

They chose corn as the initial test subject because it is more sensitive to weather and drought than other crops grown in the region, he said. "Corn is your canary in the coal mine and it's a big commodity crop."

Future versions of the model might provide a wider range of information, including data that could help farmers plan their irrigation schedules.

This could be especially valuable in the southeastern U.S., where many soil types do not hold water well, according to Dr. John Christy, director of UAHuntsville's Earth System Science Center and the Alabama climatologist. "We have a special problem, because our soil dries quickly. That's not only because of the types of soil we have, but also because we have so many active plants that release water into the atmosphere as a way of fighting the heat.

"I've heard several farmers in Alabama say, 'We're always one week from a drought,' because things can get very hot and dry in only a week," he said. "Droughts can happen very quickly in the southeast, as happened in the latter half of June. We went from cool and wet to things really suffering, and it happened in less than two weeks."

The gridssat model takes into consideration the prevalent soil type in each county in measuring and forecasting plant stress.

-----

EDITORS: For more information, contact Cameron Handyside at cameron.handyside@nsstc.uah.edu.