Climate Adaptation Science Centers

Ecological Drought Across the Country

Droughts of the future will be hotter, longer-lasting, and larger than droughts of the past. Drought can lead to increases in wildfire and insect outbreaks, local species extinctions, forest diebacks, and altered rates of carbon, nutrient, and water cycling – all of which can have real consequences for ecosystems and human communities alike.

The Challenge

The Knowns, Needs, and Solutions

Historically, drought has been viewed in terms of its agricultural, hydrological, and socioeconomic impacts. How drought affects ecosystems - and the services they provide human communities - is often not discussed. In response, the National Climate Adaptation Science Center (NCASC) is leading a national-scale initiative that’s addressing this gap in drought research. A new conceptecological drought – was needed to capture this emphasis on how drought impacts ecosystems. Research was funded to identify what we know about the impacts of ecological drought across the country (the Knowns), where information is lacking (the Needs), and how managers can plan for these impacts and adapt to changing conditions in the future (the Solutions).

Ecological drought isAn episodic deficit in water availability that drives ecosystems beyond thresholds of vulnerability, impacts ecosystem services, and triggers feedbacks in natural and/or human systems (Crausbay, Ramirez et al. 2017).


Corn showing the effects of drought in Texas

Corn showing the effects of drought in Texas (Credit: Bob Nichols, USDA)

Emphasizing the Link Between People and Nature

Importantly, the concept of “ecological drought” does not exclude humans from the equation. Rather, it recognizes that the relationship between humans and ecosystems in the context of drought is one that is closely linked, with multiple feedbacks. For example, take an ecosystem that has been significantly altered by human development. This ecosystem is now more vulnerable to drought than it once was, for a number of reasons, one of which is increased competition for water resources. When a drought occurs, the existing pressures on the ecosystem’s natural water supplies are amplified. If the water needs of the ecosystem are not considered in allocation decisions, then this already vulnerable ecosystem may be pushed beyond the threshold at which it can recover. The ecosystem will begin to function differently, leading to a loss in the critical services it once provided humans -- such as purifying water and air, preventing erosion, and providing recreation opportunities. This is just one example of how human and natural systems influence each other in the context of drought, yet it demonstrates the real value of considering the water needs of ecosystems and the effects of human water and land use on ecological water supplies.

Learn About Drought in Your Region 

Click on the regions below to learn about ecological drought management challenges in different regions across the country, and what we're doing about it.


Our Goals

Drought conditions at Canton Lake, Oklahoma.

Drought conditions at Canton Lake, Oklahoma.

A National-Scale Effort

Every region of the country is susceptible to some form of drought. In the Northeast, a region which is used to predictable precipitation patterns, small shifts in the timing, type (rain vs. snow), and amount of precipitation can be detrimental. In the Southwest, even the hardiest of desert species can be challenged by prolonged and extremely hot droughts. And in Hawai’i, drought is contributing to the spread of invasive grasses, which now make up a quarter of the state’s land cover. With our eight regional Climate Adaptation Science Centers (CASCs), which cover the entire United States in addition to the U.S. Virgin Islands and U.S.-Affiliated Pacific Islands, our network is well-positioned to examine ecological drought across the country.


The overarching goal of the Ecological Drought initiative is to support the effective management of ecosystems and human communities in the context of drought. To meet this goal, we aim to:

  1. Identify drought impacts across the country
  2. Synthesize our knowledge of the ecological impacts of drought, so that we can get a complete picture of what we know and where the gaps are – which will help guide future research
  3. Communicate this knowledge to resource managers and other stakeholders
  4. Support decision-making by ensuring that resource managers have the information they need to prepare for and respond to drought.

What We're Doing

To meet these goals, NCASC has implemented a four-part approach:

  1. Research: The National and Regional CASCs are also funding research focused on identifying drought impacts to support management-decisions. These projects examine both documented impacts and also potential future impacts of drought, based on projected changes in temperature and precipitation. Our drought-related projects can be separated into two main categories:

    (A) Impacts of drought. Examples include:

    (B) Decision-support tools. Examples include:


  1. SNAPP Ecological Drought Working Group
    This working group was launched by NCASC, The Nature Conservancy, and The Wildlife Conservation Society, and is part of the Science for Nature and People Partnership (SNAPP). The group is focused on understanding the natural and human dimensions of ecological drought impacts, and promoting the application of solutions that provide mutual benefits to people and nature. The group has developed a framework and definition of ecological drought that is flexible across landscapes and helps communities prepare for the rising risk of drought, and the potential for novel drought conditions, in the 21st century. They are already working closely with natural resource managers in the Upper Missouri Headwaters in Montana to better understand manager needs and test the framework in a real-world drought preparedness effort.


  2. Workshops 
    To help identify and communicate regional drought impacts, NCASC teamed up with the Integration & Application Network (IAN) at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. Through this partnership, an Ecological Drought Workshop was held in each CASC’s region to convene regional experts in drought and discuss the impacts to ecosystems and ways forward for management. Each regional workshop resulted in a newsletter communicating the story of ecological drought in that region. Click the titles below to view our completed newsletters:
  3. Webinar Series
    To help get the word out about our ecological drought research projects, NCASC hosted a monthly ecological drought webinar for the duration of 2017. Each webinar highlights drought research being done at one of the CASCs. Check out past drought webinars below, and webinars on other topics here.