Preparing for Climate Change-Driven Drought
There are several direct and indirect obstacles to ensuring ecosystems remain intact and able to function — while human communities are also able to thrive – in the face of climate change-driven ecological drought. Two key problems are (1) the lack of available information on the true impacts of drought, and (2) the fact that decision-makers may fail to appreciate the importance of drought impacts on natural systems. They may also not be aware of nature-based approaches to drought management.
Adding to these problems, the chronic under-valuation of ecosystem services is reflected in a history of conflict and lawsuits over water allocation, especially in the American West.
Many of the ways people manage for drought (for example, removing water from streams and rivers to irrigate crops) can have damaging effects on wildlife and ecosystems. Such actions not only directly affect conservation; they can also undermine critical ecosystem services that benefit humans.
While dry streambeds and raging forest fires are clear signs of ecological drought, many other effects of water reductions on ecological systems are less well monitored or understood.
One aspect of prolonged ecological drought is the occurrence of a transformational drought, which is a drought that can push a population, community or entire ecosystem into a new, different, and potentially persistent state.
The concept of transformation also highlights the need to develop methods for estimating and anticipating future drought risks without relying solely on data from the past. This need is especially pressing for stakeholders engaged in water management and infrastructure design and is a key component of all pro-active efforts to protect nature and people.
For example, in 10 of the past 14 years, conditions defined as “extreme” or “exceptional” droughts have occurred across at least 10 percent of the land area in the western United States. The fact that these thresholds are regularly exceeded suggests a strong need to re-evaluate our metrics, and ramp up our response efforts.
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