Ecological Drought in the Southeast United States: Balancing Competing Demands for Water Supplies

In the past 15 years, the southeastern U.S. has experienced three record-breaking droughts. The most recent drought drew national attention as it fueled rare fall wildfires in the Great Smoky Mountains and elsewhere in the region.

Stretching from the Appalachian Mountains to the Atlantic Coast and the Gulf of Mexico, the Southeast supports diverse ecological communities and large human populations, both of which place an enormous demand on the water supply. Though generally considered a water-rich area, periodic drought is part of the region’s historical climate patterns. Yet as climate change influences temperature, precipitation, and circulation patterns, drought conditions may become more prevalent, placing further stress on the region’s water resources.

In light of these concerns, the Department of the Interior Southeast Climate Science Center (CSC) is working to identify how drought will manifest itself throughout the region and what these changing conditions could mean for ecosystems and wildlife. In November 2016, a group of climate and ecological experts met to discuss ecological drought and identified several core issues:

1. Balancing the needs of human and natural systems
As the population and economy of the Southeast continue to grow, it is imperative to understand how climate change and drought will further influence water resources that currently support the competing demands of urban areas, agriculture, industry, and ecosystems.

2. Precipitation patterns are changing
Image of the cover of the Southeast CSC ecodrought newsletterPrecipitation in the Southeast is becoming more variable, with summer months becoming drier and fall months becoming wetter. Although average rainfall amounts have not decreased, in many parts of the region dry years are becoming drier and droughts have become more frequent. The soils in this region don’t hold much water, so even a few weeks without rainfall can cause drought.

3. Distinct Southeastern landscapes and biodiversity are at risk
Due to the region’s warm climate and typically ample rainfall, remarkably diverse plant and animal communities are found in the Southeast – including species found nowhere else in the world. However, this high diversity also creates a high ecological water demand. Rising temperatures and changing precipitation patterns are expected to lengthen and intensify periods of reduced water availability, placing novel stresses on both human and ecological communities.

This workshop was hosted in partnership by the Southeast CSC, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science Integration & Application Network, and the USGS National Climate Change and Wildlife Science Center. This was the fifth in a series of eight workshops being held across the United States, each in a different region. Each workshop results in a four-page informational document that synthesizes the current understanding of ecological drought in the region. Click the graphic on the right to view the informational document from the Southeast workshop.

Learn more about Ecological Drought in other regions of the U.S. here

Published Date: March 14th, 2017
Keywords: Drought