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Forest Service Drought Report Serves as ‘Foundation of Understanding’ for Forest, Rangeland Managers in a Changing Climate

Lake Meade in Nevada

In addition to the impact on the region’s water supply, lower reservoir levels, such as shown in Lake Meade in Nevada, have an adverse effect on outdoor recreation activities and the businesses that support them. (U.S. Geological Survey)

Drought is inevitable, a recurring natural event – or series of events – that can be felt over a season or a severe, longer lasting natural event that has social and economic consequences.

But how land managers prepare for or react at any stage of a drought in today’s world with the increasing effects of climate change and the information they use is the focus of a new report by the U.S. Forest Service, Effects of Drought on Forests and Rangelands in the United States: A Comprehensive Science Synthesis. The exhaustive report evaluates appropriate ways to quantify and monitor drought, assesses consequences for forests and rangelands, and identifies potential adaption strategies.

While most think of drought as a simple lack of water, the nature of drought can encompass much more. The report points out that drought can attack our socioeconomic core by reducing forage and water available for livestock grazing on rangelands, which could mean a portion of the nation’s food source is at risk, with some communities more at risk than others.

Cracked dry mud

The obvious effects of drought can be seen in dry, cracked mud. But drought affects forest and rangeland systems both directly and indirectly. In regions where seasonal droughts are common, forest and rangeland ecosystems respond through various physiological and morphological adaptations. In regions where drought is less common, responses can be substantial because ecosystems are not well adapted to drought conditions. (U.S. Geological Survey)

However, the authors—77 scientists from the Forest Service and other federal agencies—said the report synthesizes published scientific information to help researchers, land managers, policymakers and others by providing, “…a set of realistic inferences of drought effects that can be applied to help predict future impacts and evaluate management options for adaptation and mitigation.”

The report cautions land managers to not focus on just large-scale drought events. They report that even moderate drought can have long-lasting impacts on the structure and function of forest and rangelands without these obvious large-scale changes. While the report stops short of outlining steps land managers should take, it does provide a scientific start to land management decisions.

“Management actions can either mitigate or exacerbate the effects of drought,” said U.S. Forest Service Scientist Toral Patel-Weynand. “This synthesis gives us a foundation of understanding that will enable us to better manage for drought resiliency and adaptation from here on out.”

Dothistroma needle blight as shown on these pine needles

Drought can increase the intensity of insect and pathogen outbreaks, including Dothistroma needle blight as shown on these pine needles. (Robert L. James/U.S. Forest Service/

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