Mike Crimmins is on the faculty of the Department of Environmental Science at the University of Arizona and is an Extension Specialist in Climate Science for Arizona Cooperative Extension. He has been in this role for 15 years working with ranchers, farmers and natural resource managers across Arizona to integrate climate information in their planning and decision making and assisting them in developing strategies to adapt to a changing climate.

The improved drought monitoring systems and connecting weather data to practical applications have become a critical part of managing an ever-changing climate. Dr. Crimmins's insights show how critical climatology research is to agriculture in our desert state.

My conversation with Mike Crimmins, especially about DroughtView, an online tool that makes it easy to access and plot near-real-time satellite data, caused me to conclude that even our biggest challenges in this arid state have truly hopeful outcomes. After an all-inclusive scientific approach, key ingredients involve a mix of patience and tenacity.

Arizona Agriculture: Explain your Lead role for the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension Climate Science Applications Program?

Crimmins: I started this position in 2005 when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration partnered with the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension to create an extension position focused on climate data and information. I was a weather nerd as a kid and received my undergraduate degree in meteorology from the University of Michigan. I was all set to work for the National Weather Service as a weather forecaster, but decided to go back to school and study climate. My wife and I ended up going to graduate school at the University of Arizona where I studied climatology. I was lucky to have this position open up just as I was finishing my Ph.D. It was a perfect match for my interests in understanding regional weather and climate patterns and figuring out how to make this research useful for people who live and work here.

My extension program is focused on thinking through weather and climate information needs for farmers, ranchers and natural resource managers who work here in the Southwest and developing ways for them to use this information. There is an ever-increasing amount of weather and climate data from new weather stations, satellites, and modeling efforts, but it often gets lost on a website or parked in a journal somewhere. I am excited about connecting these data to practical applications. This involves getting to know how our stakeholders do their jobs and what their information needs are and then thinking about what data and information sources there are out there that may be useful.  

Arizona Agriculture: What are some examples of this kind of work?

Crimmins: I was part of a team of University of Arizona researchers who worked with a group of ranchers and the U.S. Forest Service on collaborative drought planning. One need that surfaced in our discussions was the need for better tools for monitoring precipitation at remote locations on pastures and allotments. We collaboratively came up with some innovative ways to build rugged rain gauges that can be deployed at these locations and then designed some web tools that use existing climate data estimates to help interpret the observations collected at these remote locations. This blends some tried and true low-tech approaches like using manual rain gauges with high-tech climate data sources available through smartphone apps. Having a better handle on local precipitation amounts and being able to compare these observations to historical estimates can help trigger actions in drought plans and inform proactive decision-making. The webtool is called MyRAINge Log available at https://myraingelog.arizona.edu/.  more information on other tools from this project is available at https://cals.arizona.edu/droughtandgrazing/.

Another example is DroughtView (https://droughtview.arizona.edu/), an online tool that makes it easy to access and plot near-real-time satellite data. I am a member of the team of University of Arizona researchers that developed this tool to monitor drought impacts on vegetation using ‘greenness’ measurements from several different satellites. The exciting thing about DroughtView is that it takes historical data from these different satellites that have been collecting data for decades and communicates how unusual current conditions are with respect to long-term averages.

For example, we can look at how the record dry conditions impacted forage conditions across the region at the end of September. All of central Arizona and especially southeast Arizona was way off in terms of expected ‘greenness’ with the record dry and hot conditions. Having this high-resolution depiction of actual drought impacts helps us guide drought monitoring efforts like the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Southern Arizona Rancher Tina Thompson reacts to Mike Crimmins's insights on weather and drought monitoring. She's boots on the ground and she knows what it takes to manage for optimum range conditions for her cattle herd and the wildlife. So understanding Arizona's weather is key.

Arizona Agriculture: What’s the most unique aspect of Arizona climate that we take for granted?

Crimmins: I am fascinated by the distinct seasons we have here in Arizona that is unlike seasons in other parts of the country. We have a seasonal climate that is marked largely by precipitation rather than temperature. The onset of the monsoon in summer is dramatic, with a distinct jump in low-level moisture and precipitation in late June into early July. This has an impact on agriculture from heat stress to crops and irrigation requirements, but also ushers in precipitation that is critical to growing forage on rangelands. Once the monsoon season wanes in late September we can occasionally have epic rains from tropical storms but are often just waiting for the winter storms to drop far enough south to give us soaking rains and high elevation snow. We can get different types of drought situations that emerge from missing precipitation from either of these ‘wet’ seasons. Missing winter precipitation can create problems for reservoirs and water availability while missing summer can create forage and vegetation impacts.

Unfortunately, we are currently in a situation where we may miss both, with record dry summer 2020 conditions linking up with the presently dry winter, driven by a strong La Nia event in the Pacific Ocean.  

Arizona Agriculture: In Arizona, what is the critical issue or issues we must face in agriculture when it comes to drought and climate change?

Crimmins: I think tracking different kinds of drought is going to be a challenge, where short-term drought conditions may improve (for example, during a summer monsoon with plentiful rainfall across the region), but longer-term drought conditions remain. The warming temperatures across the region create an increasingly thirsty atmosphere with higher levels of evapotranspiration, which can reduce the effective precipitation and increase irrigation needs. We need to develop tools and drought monitoring strategies that can track these subtle changes even when short-term conditions appear to be wet.

Arizona Agriculture: As a desert state we’ve already made remarkable technology adjustments to handle our climate challenges regardless of climate change. But, what’s next for us in agriculture to do?

Crimmins: I think agriculture in Arizona has an exciting role to think through on how to adapt to a changing climate and lead the way for other arid regions around the world. Thinking through how to increase irrigation efficiency, rotations through longer growing seasons, and crop varieties that can tolerate different temperature ranges and water quality levels are all great tools for the adaptation toolbox. Growers in Arizona are already doing many of these things and it is a matter of how research can quickly develop new innovations in these areas and help growers implement them.

There are also exciting opportunities on the greenhouse gas mitigation side with agriculture being an important player in helping to ‘farm carbon’ and sequester it through agricultural activities. These sequestration efforts can help bring down CO2 levels in the atmosphere and reduce the impacts of climate change. Some of these efforts are being explored in new partnerships like the Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance (https://agclimatealliance.com/), of which the Farm Bureau is a member.

Arizona Agriculture: If climate change is the big issue for the next decade, from your scientific perspective, are you hopeful or concerned and if so why?

Crimmins: Climate change is a big issue for the coming decade, probably the biggest issue for us to tackle, but I am hopeful. There are exciting innovations in the way we make and use energy, water, and food, all of which are tied to climate. Here in the Southwest, we will need to wrestle with all three, but we have the tools and research to tackle these challenges head-on. Agriculture is not only important to the economy but the fabric of Arizona and I see it as a critical partner in tackling these challenges and flourishing from the innovations.