Working Group:
Ecological Drought

Ecological drought can be defined as a prolonged and widespread deficit in naturally available water supplies — including changes in natural and managed hydrology — that create multiple stresses across ecosystems. As global temperatures continue to rise, the intensity and frequency of such ecological droughts in North America are expected to increase leading to a wide range of social and ecological impacts.

Photo: © Ian Shive
Montana Ranch Girls
Photo: © Ami Vitale

Working Group Summary

Bolstering Intact Functioning Ecosystems for People and Nature

To meet the challenge of climate change-driven drought, the Ecological Drought Working Group will synthesize the current understanding of ecological (multi-year, climate-induced) drought, identify research priorities, and work with existing pilot efforts on drought resiliency. The Working Group seeks to create a framework to help communities better prepare for drought and to adopt management strategies that bolster – rather than degrade – the intact, functioning ecosystems that benefit both people and nature.

Learn about the Challenge





Photo: © Devan King/TNC

The Challenge

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.

Learn about the Inquiry

Dolan Falls Preserve, Texas: water surrounding the Dolan falls. © Ian Shive

The Inquiry

Improving the Way People and Nature Cope with Drought

Addressing the challenges of ecological drought requires converting science into actions that improve the ability of nature and people to anticipate, prepare for, and cope with drought.

The time is ripe for efforts to develop, showcase and encourage the adoption of models for drought planning that adequately prepare for the future and value the contributions that ecosystem-based drought management strategies play in benefiting both humans and natural systems.

The Ecological Drought Working Group will use four related strategies to meet the challenges of preparing for climate change-driven drought.

  • The Working Group will synthesize available information on ecological drought under current and future climates and compile examples of ecosystem-based approaches for managing drought impacts. This synthesis, including maps and thresholds for ecosystems at risk of “transitional drought,” will provide the foundation for expert- and stakeholder-based assessments of the current state of knowledge and enable the group to identify information gaps.
  • Through this review, the Working Group will then work to characterize ecological sensitivities and frame critical drought thresholds for different ecosystems and geographies, and connect them with drought management solutions that benefit both humans and ecosystems. As part of this phase, the group will engage managers and practitioners to identify information needs, identify additional research gaps, and highlight decision points for drought management.
  • To demonstrate the value of the synthesis and assessment, the Working Group will work with practitioners at a river-basin scale in the Upper Missouri Headwaters in Montana to incorporate information on ecological droughts and ecosystem-based drought management strategies into real-world conservation and community drought preparedness efforts.
  • To increase the influence and effectiveness of the Ecological Working Group’s findings, the group will involve influential policymakers at national, regional and local scales, including the leads of the Upper Missouri Headwaters pilot project of the National Drought Resilience Partnership.
Photo: © Ian Shive | More Info

The Team

The Ecological Drought Working Group