National Drought Mitigation Center


Zhang uses AI models to boost drought impact analysis

June 12, 2024

Beichen Zhang uses various geospatial and AI techniques in his research to predict and assess drought impacts in various sectors, including ecological and socioeconomic.

By Emily Case-Buskirk, NDMC Communications Specialist

By leveraging the power of AI models, including natural language models similar to ChatGPT, Beichen Zhang has worked to merge drought data with impacts to boost drought impact analysis. 

Zhang has a bachelor’s degree in geographic information science from Northwest A&F University in China, where he also studied remote sensing. He had his first connection with the National Drought Mitigation Center (NDMC) in 2016 through a project with Deb Bathke, NDMC education coordinator.  

“That’s the first time I participated in water-related research projects... I was attracted because it’s a great way to apply the hard skills I learned in geospatial modeling,” he said. 

He was also interested in the ties between drought and climate change, which he has learned more about during his time with the NDMC.  

“Drought will exist regardless of climate change or not, but drought is a persisting issue or threat for humans. It’s always there,” he said. “This type of natural disaster, which is different from wildfire or floods, is always invisible with a very broad impact.” 

Zhang decided to pursue interests in drought monitoring and modeling for his master’s work. He worked with Tsegaye Tadesse, NDMC geospatial coordinator, to develop pieces that would be foundational to the Forest Drought Response Index (ForDRI).

ForDRI is a composite drought indicator that uses 12 different data types to provide a forest drought monitoring tool for the continental U.S. Zhang helped develop a gravity-based satellite to monitor the change in water levels based on satellite data and tailored it for U.S. forest drought monitoring.  

In 2019, he earned a Master’s in Natural Resource Sciences with a specialization in climate impact assessments. Zhang stayed with the NDMC for his Ph.D. program in Natural Resource Science specializing in Climate Assessment and Impacts. He successfully defended his dissertation in May and will graduate in August.  

For his Ph.D. work, Zhang pivoted to drought impacts, which he saw as a logical next step after developing drought indices. Besides Tsegaye, he was also co-advised by Mike Hayes, NDMC affiliated faculty and applied climate scientist in the School of Natural Resources. 

“The reason we develop the indices is not only to monitor drought conditions; we eventually want to apply how we learn and address the drought impacts,” Zhang said.  

By using various geospatial and AI techniques, Zhang strives to predict and assess drought impacts in various sectors including ecological and socioeconomic. Zhang used natural language processing AI capabilities and converted qualitative data to quantitative data through a process called embedding. 

He leveraged the advantages of the Drought Impacts Toolkit, developed by Kelly Smith, NDMC drought impacts researcher. It is a text-based and integrated online database that records multifaceted drought impacts from various resources, such as Condition Monitoring Observation Reports (CMOR) and Community Collaborative Rain, Snow and Hail Network (CoCoRaHS). 

“We want to highlight and add these additional data sources... and help us understand drought impacts we didn't understand or observe before,” he said.

In his next role as a postdoctoral researcher for the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif., Zhang will work closer to climate change field by studying decarbonization pathways. He will develop data-driven tools to help assess the societal and environmental impacts of various decarbonization strategies.

Although he looks forward to the next step in his career, he said he will miss the life he’s had in Lincoln after spending seven years studying here, and the NDMC staff he collaborated with. He’ll also miss the tranquil atmosphere of East Campus and nearby bike trails. 

“I really want to highlight the appreciation to the whole Drought Center as a family,” he said. “As an international student at the beginning, those supports—the Drought Center and SNR and teacher assistantship—were helpful for me to build skills of speaking and writing and communicating with students,” he said.