Experts Launch Project to Assess Drought Effects on Ecosystems and How Communities Can Adapt

A Partnership of USGS, The Nature Conservancy, and Wildlife Conservation Society under the Science for Nature and People Partnership
In recognition of World Water Day and in conjunction with the White House Water Summit, the U.S. Geological Survey is raising awareness of water issues and potential solutions in the United States.

RESTON, Va. — A new public-private research collaboration supported by the U.S. Geological Survey will tackle how to best cope with the increasing droughts of the future.

The USGS, The Nature Conservancy, and The Wildlife Conservation Society are launching the Ecological Drought Working Group as part of the Science for Nature and People Partnership (SNAPP). This research group is composed of drought, climate change, economic and conservation experts from these and other institutions. The scientists will conduct a comprehensive assessment of the ecological impacts of drought on ecosystems and wildlife and people and their livelihoods, as well as propose methods to lessen such impacts, both ecologically and economically. 

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“The group’s findings will inform local communities, businesses and conservation practitioners about the most effective ways to prepare for and respond to drought impacts,” said Shawn Carter, senior scientist at the USGS National Climate Change and Wildlife Science Center and a co-lead of the working group.


Carter noted that both historical and recent droughts not only cause great economic hardships, but they also are often ecologically devastating. Droughts, which have ravaged much of the United States in recent years, are estimated to have resulted in more than $100 billion in damages between 1980 and 2000.


“Our work can help communities adapt to the long-term effects of drought by supporting healthy ecosystems,” said Carter. “For example, even a relatively simple action, such as reintroducing beavers into ecosystems where they used to live, can boost the natural storage capacity of watersheds.”

Working group co-lead Molly Cross, North America WCS climate change adaptation coordinator, emphasized that for people to be adequately prepared for drought they need to understand how drought-impacted ecosystems can harm human communities, such as through increased wildfire hazards or through adverse effects on fish and wildlife valued for hunting- and angling-based economies. “By raising awareness and understanding about these ecological impacts of drought, we’ll be able to help people all over the country make informed decisions to prepare for and respond to long-term drought,” Cross added.

Products from the SNAPP Ecological Drought Working Group will be tailored to add value to state and local drought planning, including in the Upper Missouri headwaters of Montana. In 2015, five counties in this region were declared disaster areas due to their extreme drought conditions. The Obama Administration’s National Drought Resilience Partnership selected this region as a place to demonstrate how federal and state agencies can leverage knowledge, capacity and resources to better prepare Montana communities for future drought impacts. Additional case studies will be examined by the SNAPP Ecological Drought working group to encompass a range of drought impacts across the United States.

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“Drought has been plaguing our country for decades, but people tend to focus on immediate challenges such as the impacts on agriculture and surface and groundwater availability,” said Craig Groves, executive director of the Science for Nature and People Partnership. “Drought and its impacts are much more complicated and profound than that. Even seemingly minor changes in water supply can have huge ecological impacts that are keenly felt by both people and nature. The Science for Nature and People Partnership is delighted to be working with USGS to better understand and respond to this mounting challenge for people from all parts of the country.”


“Climate change is likely to intensify the frequency and ferocity of droughts in places where it typically occurs, and lead to novel drought impacts in unexpected places,” said Giulio Boccaletti, Global Managing Director for Water, The Nature Conservancy. “The new SNAPP initiative will be crucial for helping us to better anticipate the range of future drought impacts so that we can implement strategies to protect people and nature, and improve the odds of achieving long term benefits from our drought planning efforts.”

Sources: United States Geological SurveyScience for Nature and People Partnership