Ecological Drought

Researchers are actively working to understand the impacts of "ecological drought" on important natural and cultural resources.

Drake's Peak, Oregon

Arrow icon What's The Problem?

Drought imposes many tangible and obvious impacts on human food and water supplies. But the effects of drought can actually go much deeper and are often more insidious. Long periods without rainfall can alter the delicate balance of natural ecosystems and harm many fish and wildlife species. The term “ecological drought” encompasses and emphasizes these environmental consequences (including losses in plant growth, increases in fire and insect outbreaks, altered rates of carbon, nutrient, and water cycling, and local species extinctions).

The CSCs & NCCWSC currently define “ecological drought” as a “prolonged and widespread deficit in naturally available water supplies - including changes in natural and managed hydrology - that create multiple stresses across ecosystems.”  

Scientists anticipate that the frequency of ecological drought in many areas across the country will increase in the future as temperatures rise and precipitation patterns become more variable. Ecological drought is a particularly important line of new research because very little information is currently known about the magnitude or persistence of potential impacts.  

arrow icon What Are We Doing?

The CSCs and NCCWSC, along with a number of partners, are actively working to understand the regional effects of ecological drought, identify potential threats to valued resources, and prioritize research efforts that consider potential drought effects on ecological systems.

Regional Research Projects

Dry Sink Bed

Distribution and Flow of Water in Alaskan Coastal Forest Watersheds

Understanding the Wind River Indian Reservation’s Vulnerability to Drought and Supporting Drought Preparedness

Assessing the Potential Impacts of Projected Climate Change on Vegetation Management Strategies within Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park

Impacts of Drought on Waterbird Wetland Habitats, Bioenergetics, and Movements in the Central Valley of California

Can Management Increase Forest Resistance to Drought?

Improving Resilience to Drought in the Rio Grande River Basin

Assessing and Synthesizing River-Related Science, Management Policies and Planning Tools for the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo Watershed

Assessing Vulnerability to Drought in Dryland Ecosystems of the Western U.S.

Understanding the Impacts of Drought on Southwestern Cutthroat Trout

To see a more complete list of our projects related to drought, please use our Project Search or browse through our projects by region.

Ecological Drought Working Group

Burning Sagebrush

Together, the NCCWSC, Nature Conservancy and Wildlife Conservation Society have launched a new Ecological Drought Expert Working Group through the Science for Nature and People partnership. The goal of the working group is to deliver a comprehensive assessment of the ecological impacts of drought and to inform efforts to reduce the risks facing nature and people. The group will also seek to understand ways in which communities can adapt to the long-term effects of drought by supporting healthy ecosystems. The group’s findings will be synthesized at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis and will help to inform local communities, businesses and conservation practitioners. The work will also help guide new research being conducted around the country.

Learn More about the Ecological Drought Working Group >>

Regional Drought Synthesis Workshops 

The NCCWSC is working with the Integration and Application Network (IAN), an initiative of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, on an initiative to synthesize and communicate information related to ecological drought that is developed and collected throughout the CSC network. Through this partnership, eight workshops will be held in each of the eight CSC regions to collate our existing knowledge of the ecological impacts of and resistance and adaptation to drought across the U.S. The regional workshops will culminate in a national synthesis project where representatives from each CSC will join together to write and publish several papers describing the state of our knowledge on ecological drought.

Learn More about the Synthesis Workshops >>

View summaries from the regional workshops:

Ecological Drought in Alaska: The impacts of climate change on a large, diverse, remote landscape >>

Ecological Drought in the North Central U.S.: Droughts of the future will not be the droughts of the past >> 

Ecological Drought in the Northeast U.S.: Anticipating changes to iconic species, landscapes, and ecosystems >>

Ecological Drought in the South Central U.S.: The time to act is now >>

Ecological Drought in the Southeast U.S.: Balancing competing demands for water supplies >>

Images on Page:
Top: Drought- and bark-beetle–induced mortality in high-elevation whitebark pine forests, northern Warner Mountains (Drakes Peak), Oregon. By Connie Millar, U.S. Forest Service
Middle: Dry Sink Bed. By Alan Cressler, USGS
Bottom: Sagebrush burning at Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge. By Scott Shaff, USGS