The Great Plains of Wrath: Assessing Drought Conditions in Rangelands

EarthzineDEVELOP Summer 2013 VPS, DEVELOP Virtual Poster Session, Original

Drought Severity Index calculated from Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) and Landsat 8 for portions of Wyoming and Colorado.

Team Location: Langley Research Center, Hampton, Virginia


Lance Watkins (Mississippi State University)

Jerrod Lessel (California State University Fresno)

Alexandra Perillo (University of North Carolina Wilmington)


Kenton Ross, Ph.D. (NASA, DEVELOP National Science Advisor)

Justin Derner, Ph.D. (USDA Agricultural Research Service Rangeland Resources Research Unit)

Mark Boggess, Ph.D. (USDA Agricultural Research Service, Food Animal Production and Rangeland Systems, National Program Leader)


The Great Plains in the United States is primarily used for agriculture, including livestock production. Drought has been severely impacting agricultural lands in the Great Plains since 2011. About 80 percent of agricultural lands were affected by drought conditions in recent years, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Economic Research Service. This project partnered with the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) Rangeland Resources Research Unit (RRRU). Dr. Derner and his colleagues provide up-to-date range management information for land managers and ranchers to use in management decisions. This project investigated methods for monitoring drought conditions at a finer resolution than currently used methodologies, using several sensors demonstrating interagency cooperation and collaboration.

The sensors include NASA Earth observations, such as Landsat 8’s OperationalLand Imager (OLI) and Thermal Infrared Sensor (TIRS) and the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) data onboard Aqua and Terra. Other sensors include the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Multi-sensor Precipitation Estimator (MPE) and the NASA/Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) Aqua Advanced Microwave Scanning Radiometer for EOS (AMSR-E). In order to assess the effectiveness of these new methodologies, this study focused on six counties, three in Colorado and three in Wyoming, within the U.S. Great Plains. The goal of these new methods was to create end products that can be expanded and applied over the entire Great Plains region. The proposed end products included a drought severity index, soil moisture product to anchor the drought index, and rangeland definition maps. The drought severity index identified drought conditions in our study area. Rangeland definition maps identified several ways to classify land types in the project study area. The soil moisture tool tracked the changes in soil moisture in the study area during the study time period. The benefits to the project partner included a methodology and a tool of how to utilize and incorporate NASA Earth observations and ancillary data, such as NOAA MPE and AMSR-E into rangeland research and management decisions.

Return to the Summer 2013 VPS page.