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Mapping U.S. Drought Projections Helps Foresters Plan for Sustainability

These maps depict change in an index of drought severity for the period 2070-2099 under multiple climate scenarios. The maps show a large variation in potential drought throughout much of the conterminous US, mostly because of high uncertainty in future precipitation. Photo by Matthew Peters, USDA Forest Service

Droughts are natural disturbances that can cause negative effects on natural ecosystems and also have important social and economic consequences. Researchers are helping land managers prepare for changing climate conditions by developing projections of how drought may change in the future.

Scientists with the USDA Forest Service Northern Research Station and their partners are investigating how regional temperatures, precipitation, and drought may change across the United States in coming decades. Mapped projections of multiple climate scenarios throughout this century provide important information useful for natural resource managers working to sustain natural ecosystems and the benefits that they provide. Although relatively small changes in drought are expected during the next few decades, these changes are expected to accelerate during the latter half of the century. These changes will likely impact plant and animal growth and survival and lead to changes in forest composition and structure. These projections of drought, when considered in light of the uncertainties present within climate models, can help managers and individual landowners prioritize strategies to help the ecosystems they oversee adapt to the upcoming conditions. Efforts to make this information more accessible to landowners and managers is vital; current management and silvicultural activities will shape the next forest over the course of this century. Understanding these potential patterns, as well as advancing understanding of how species respond to global change pressures, will be essential in planning for forest resilience and adaptation, other aspects of biological conservation, and society as a whole.