The UCSB Climate Hazards Group collaborated with the U.S. Geological Survey to create a single, comprehensive database of precipitation patterns to monitor droughts worldwide.
Called the CHG InfraRed Precipitation with Stations archive, this database includes both data from satellites and multiple rainfall monitoring stations on land. The collection is on-going — spanning from 1981 to the near-present — and will be combined with other environmental data to predict famines.
Chris Funk, research director at Climate Hazards Group, said the database — also called CHIRPS — focuses on areas where irrigation systems and rainfall data were previously lacking, such as Kenya and Ethiopia. He said CHIRPS is designed to first identify details as small as wet and dry seasons and then inform the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, or FEWS Net, on how to prepare agricultural communities for possible dry spells.
According to CHG Scientific Programmer Pete Peterson, the communities most affected by droughts are those that reside in areas with rain-fed agriculture, creating what Peterson said is the “it doesn’t rain, it doesn’t grow” scenario.
“We could have a dry April and be fine because we just pull the water in from somewhere else,” Peterson said. “Places like these don’t have that kind of infrastructure, so they really are dependent on what falls out of the sky.”
According to Funk, CHIRPS monitors rainfall in detailed maps to make predictions on the future of communities. Funk said the predictions suggest that in the next couple of months, these areas will face difficult environmental situations that will affect agricultural business.
“The crops are going to fail, the vegetation is going to go away [and] people who make their lives herding cattle and goats are going to be in trouble because there’s no vegetation,” Funk said.
Peterson said nonprofit aid organizations were initially only focused on reactive measures such as delivering food to famished countries. Now, he said, groups like FEWS Net can take more preventative measures with the CHIRPS maps.
“For all the money we’re spending sending food, what if we spent a little bit of money to do some science?” Peterson said.
Peterson said he makes highly detailed maps to encompass each zone’s climatology. He analyzes satellite images taken every half hour to make educated guesses about the average climate at each point on the map, which is called a “pixel.” Then, he adjusts each pixel by the percentage of how much wetter or drier his original guess was from the mean.
The final product, according to Peterson, is a map of how climate changes throughout space and time. In other words, he said, this map is a tool for prediction.

“Famines don’t happen overnight,” Peterson said. “They’re not earthquakes.”
Although these maps are designed to evaluate a climate’s impact on food production, Peterson said CHIRPS is a multi-use tool able to fulfill a variety of purposes.
“Once we make a rainfall product, people use it however they want,” Peterson said. “People can do all different kinds of things with water. We’re particularly interested in things like food and security, but some people are just monitoring soil moisture.”

A version of this story appeared on page 5 of Wednesday, May 21, 2014’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.