CLEMSON — Research from Clemson University could help scientists, engineers and policymakers better understand drought, considered to be the world’s most widespread natural disaster.

With the help of a prestigious CAREER award from the National Science Foundation, Ashok Mishra, an assistant professor of civil engineering, is building a computer model that will incorporate more factors than drought forecasters currently use and could help predict drought effects as long as six months before they are felt.

Ashok Mishra talks with students in Lowry Hall at Clemson University.

Ashok Mishra talks with students in Lowry Hall at Clemson University.

South Carolina’s Pickens, Anderson and Oconee counties, an area that includes Clemson, are suffering from extreme drought, while 13 other counties, including Greenville, remain in moderate drought, according to the state Drought Response Committee.

Drought is now commonly measured by how much supply is available, including such factors as rainfall, streamflow and soil moisture.

Mishra plans to go a step further by incorporating historical data and demand into the model. Demand would include where, when and how much water will be needed.

“We will use cascade modeling to show how the drought is likely to propagate through the hydrogeologic system to affect the human system,” he said. “It starts with the rainfall and then goes to the stream flow and lakes, and then it affects society.

“Understanding the connection between drought and water security is vitally important to creating reasonable policies to maintain ecological and economic health.”

Droughts occur in virtually every climate zone, with as much of 40 percent of the United States experiencing drought at any given time in recent years, Mishra said.

James R. Martin, chair of the Glenn Department of Civil Engineering, said the project is of added significance because it is taking place in one of the country’s fastest-growing regions and can be applied globally.

“Although the study is focused on model development within the Southeastern U.S., the underlying science, methodology and fundamental knowledge that Dr. Mishra will develop can be scaled up to any other region, producing impact on a global scale,” Martin said.

“This project will create a new model for improving water sustainability under extreme droughts and introduce it to the scientific, social and policy communities,” Mishra said. “The model results will be distributed to user groups who are currently coping with water sustainability issues and will likely do so in the future.

“The project is anticipated to directly benefit regional stakeholders to enable improved management of water resources during drought conditions, and also to assist federal agencies to forecast vulnerability to water stress in advance times that are relevant to stakeholders.”

The research will focus on the Savannah River Basin, an area encompassing 44 counties and 1.5 million people in South Carolina and Georgia. Mishra plans to disseminate his findings at conferences attended by engineers and scientists.

Martin said Mishra’s research directly addresses one of the world’s most important issues.

“I am delighted that Dr. Mishra has been recognized with a CAREER award,” Martin said. The award included a $505,595 grant to fund Mishra’s research.

“Providing clean water to our fast-growing world is one of the grand challenges identified by the National Academy of Engineering. We often take water for granted in the United States, but 80 percent of the global population faces water insecurity. This issue will grow in importance here and abroad as population levels rise,” Martin said.

Anand Gramopadhye, dean of the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences, congratulated Mishra on the award.

“The NSF CAREER award helps position Dr. Mishra as one of the nation’s leading early-career faculty members in engineering and science,” Gramopadhye said. “He has established a firm foundation on which to build a lifetime of leadership in integrating education and research. The award is well deserved.”

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under award number 1653841. Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.