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Drought Impacts to Tropical Forest Ecosystems in the U.S. Caribbean

Learn about the impacts of drought on tropical forest ecosystems in the U.S. Caribbean below. 

Authors: Shelley Crausbay, Conservation Science Partners; William Gould and Stephen Fain, USDA Caribbean Climate Hub

Download the 2-page fact sheet with graphics, or read below for an extended version of the fact sheet.


Forests in the U.S. Caribbean are spectacularly diverse, with more than 500 native tree species in Puerto Rico alone. These forests and trees provide many services to the region's 3.5 million people, including watershed and coastal protection, economic benefits from fruit and wood, cooling in urban environments, and improved water quality, recreation, habitat, and biodiversity protection. Caribbean forests range from coastal mangroves and dry forests, to rainy cloud forests on the mountain peaks. They have been shaped by frequent natural disturbances such as hurricanes, drought, flooding, landslides, and wildfire. Projected increases in temperatures and reduced or greater variability in rainfall may lead to increased drought frequency and intensity. Drought effects will vary by forest type, with greater impacts on forests adapted to perennially wet conditions. Droughts can affect the timing and amount of  fruiting and flowering with cascading effects on wildlife. Droughts can affect tree productivity, with loss of leaves and reduced canopy cover affecting nutrient cycling, and the amount of sunlight reaching forest floors. Changing nutrient and environmental conditions can affect the biota and related services delivered by forests. Under a changing climate, droughts that cause tree mortality may affect forest succession, with drier adapted species replacing wetter adapted species. Drought and wildfire can lead to loss of forests and invasion of fire-adapted nonnative shrubs and grasses.

Graphic showing up drought can impact tropical forest plants and wildlife in the U.S. Caribbean
Graphic showing how drought can impact tropical forest ecosystems in the U.S. Caribbean.

Landscape-Scale Effects

Drought affects forests in the U.S. Caribbean across the region’s distinct precipitation gradient, but may be more substantial in drier forests.

  • Individual droughts exhibit spatial variation in severity. In 1992, a drought occurred in Puerto Rico with impacts on consumption and rationing, but with no lasting effects on the wet forests. However, in 1994-95 a severe drought on the island of St. John caused mortality of 12% of trees — much greater than the mortality experienced after Hurricane Hugo in 1989.
  • A 2015 drought that impacted the U.S. Caribbean reduced flowering and seed production in the drier Guánica State Forest (Lasky et al., 2016). In contrast, wetter forests have shown increases in reproduction in drought years due to the increase in light availability and water stress

Temporal Impacts

Short-term Impacts

Droughts and other disturbances have historically shaped forests in the U.S. Caribbean, and many forest species can adjust quickly to drought conditions. But, with hotter and longer droughts already occurring and anticipated for the 21st century, drought-tolerance thresholds could be crossed.

  • Adaptive Capacity: Many tree and animal species are adapted to drought. Anolis lizards can regulate water loss through their skin during dry periods, and dryland tree species have smaller, thicker leaves and other adaptive traits to reduce water loss.
  • Crossing Thresholds: Frogs are also adaptive and can change their physiology to prevent drying, but prolonged droughts can exceed this adaptive capacity. Juvenile Coqui are particularly sensitive to drought conditions (Stewart, 1995).

Long-term Impacts

Increased frequency of hotter droughts, or longer, more extended droughts, can shape Caribbean forests by favoring certain species over others in a particular forest or resulting in the loss of species in particular places.

  • Changing Communities: Prolonged drought can change rates of reproduction for many plants and animals. The likelihood of mortality can be increased when drought and other disturbances, such as wildfire or insect outbreaks occur. Over time this can lead to shifts in species composition that persists long after a drought ends.
  • Loss of Species: Interactions between extended hot droughts, Amphibian Chytrid fungus (Burrowes et al., 2004), and hurricanes threaten the the Coqui frog across the western Cordillera (Barker and Rios-Franceschi, 2014). Similarly, some bird species dependent on seasonal rains for insects and fruit, as in the Guánica State Forest, a dry forest in southwest Puerto Rico, may be lost locally through extended droughts (Faaborg, 1982; Faaborg et al., 1984). The most vulnerable communities are those associated with the rainy cloud forests of Puerto Rico, which harbor a number of endemic and endangered plant and animal species.

Cross-Sector Impacts

In a warming climate, 21st century droughts may coincide with increased demand for water for people, agriculture, and ecosystem management. Ultimately, increasing drought frequency and severity, coupled with other disturbances and competing demands for water drought - may lead to changes in forest plant and animal communities in the U.S. Caribbean. These changes will affect human communities through altered recreation opportunities, water quality, productivity, economic benefits, and watershed protection.

Solutions & Future Research Directions

Scientists recognize the potentially important role of future droughts in the health of Caribbean forests and are beginning to track the effects in the Luquillo Experimental Forest. A better understanding of how droughts impact tropical forests across the Caribbean is still needed. Key questions include:

  • Are dry forests more vulnerable to drought across the broad precipitation gradient in U.S. Caribbean forests? 
  • Are new, emergent forests that are dominated by alien species more or less vulnerable to drought? These ‘new’ forests are highly fragmented and likely prone to soil moisture losses, or alternatively may function as drought refugia for many animals.
  • How do drought impacts to forests affect the natural functions people depend on, like erosion prevention and water quality? 
  • What plant species are likely to come in after widespread tree mortality following drought?
  • We know that soil moisture strongly controls tropical tree species distributions, community composition, and diversity. Could more frequent drought associated with climate change transform U.S. Caribbean forests?

References Cited

Barker, B.S., Rios-Franceschi, A., 2014, Population declines of mountain coqui (Eleutherodactylus portoricensis) in the Cordillera of central Puerto Rico: Herpetological Conservation and Biology, v.9, no.3, 578-589. Access here.

Burrowes, P.A., Joglar, R.L., Green, D.E., 2004, Potential causes for amphibian declines in Puerto Rico: Herpetologica, v.60, no.2, 141-154. Access here.

Faaborg, J., 1982,  Avian population fluctuations during drought conditions in Puerto Rico: The Wilson Bulletin, v.94, no.1, 20-30. Access here.

Faaborg, J., Arendt, W.J., Kaiser, M.S., 1984, Rainfall correlates of bird population fluctuations in a Puerto Rican dry forest—A nine year study: The Wilson Bulletin, v.96, no.4, 575-593. Access here.

Lasky, J.R., Uriarte, M., Muscarella, R., 2016, Synchrony, compensatory dynamics, and the functional trait basis of phenological diversity in a tropical dry forest tree community: effects of rainfall seasonality: Environmental Research Letters, v.11, no.11. Access here.

Stewart, M.M., 1995, Climate driven population fluctuations in rain forest frogs: Journal of Herpetology, v. 29, no. 3, 437-446. Access here.

Additional References

Beard, K. H., Vogt, K. A., Vogt, D. J., Scatena, F. N., Covich, A. P., Sigurdardottir, R., Siccama, T.C., and Crowl, T. A., 2005, Structural and functional responses of a subtropical forest to 10 years of hurricanes and droughts: Ecological Monographs, v.75, no.3, 345–361. Access here.

Campos-Cerqueira, M., and Aide, T. M., 2017, Lowland extirpation of anuran populations on a tropical mountain: PeerJ, 5, e4059. Access here.

Crausbay, S. D., Ramirez, A. R., Carter, S. L., Cross, M. S., Hall, K. R., Bathke, D. J., … Sanford, T., 2017, Defining ecological drought for the twenty-first century: Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, v.98, no.12, 2543–2550. Access here.

DRNA, 2016, Informe sobre la Sequía de 2014-2016 en Puerto Rico: División Monitoreo del Plan de Aguas, Departamento De Recursos Naturales Y Ambientales (DRNA), San Juan, Puerto Rico. 

Engelbrecht, B.M.J., Comita, L.S., Condit, R., Kursar, T.A., Tyree, M.T., Turner, B. L., and Hubbell, S.P., 2007, Drought sensitivity shapes species distribution patterns in tropical forests: Nature, v. 447, no.7140, 80–82. Access here.

Heartsill-Scalley, T., Scatena, F.N., Estrada, C., McDowell, W.H., and Lugo, A.E., 2007, Disturbance and long-term patterns of rainfall and throughfall nutrient fluxes in a subtropical wet forest in Puerto Rico: Journal of Hydrology, v. 333, no.2–4, 472–485. Access here.

Khalyani, A.H., Gould, W.A., Harmsen, E., Terando, A., Quinones, M., and Collazo, J.A., 2016, Climate change implications for tropical islands—Interpolating and interpreting statistically downscaled GCM projections for management and planning: Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology, v. 55, no.2, 265-282. Access here.

Larsen, M., 2000, Analysis of 20th century rainfall and streamflow to characterize drought and water resources in Puerto Rico: Physical Geography, v. 21, no. 6, 494-521. Access here.

Lugo, A.E. and García-Martino, A.R., 1996, Cartilla del agua para Puerto Rico: Acta Cientifica, v. 10, 15-89.

Lugo, A.E., Medina, E., Cuevas, E., Cintrón, G., Laboy Nieves, E.N., and Novelli, Y.S., 2007, Ecophysiology of a mangrove forest in Jobos Bay, Puerto Rico: Caribbean Journal of Science, v. 43, no. 2, 200–219. Access here.

Miller, G.L. and Lugo, A.E., 2009, Guide to the ecological systems of Puerto Rico: USDA, 1–436. Access here.

Pough, F.H., Taigen, T.L., Stewart, M.M., Brussard, P.F., Apr, N., and Pough, H., 1983, Behavioral modification of evaporative water loss by a Puerto Rican frog: Ecology, v. 64, no.2, 244–252. Access here.

Stallard, R.F., 2001, Possible environmental factors underlying amphibian decline in eastern Puerto Rico—Analysis of U.S. Government Data Archives: Conservation Biology, v. 15, no. 4, 943–953. Access here.

Vogt, D.J., Vogt, K.A., Gmur, S.J., Scullion, J.J., Suntana, A.S., Daryanto, S., and Sigurdardóttir, R., 2016, Vulnerability of tropical forest ecosystems and forest dependent communities to droughts: Environmental Research, v. 144, 27–38. Access here.

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