Ecological Drought in the South Central United States: Time is Not on Our Side

Drought is not uncommon in the South Central U.S. Encompassing the states of New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana, the region has experienced its share of multi-year droughts – including the infamous Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Yet while the South Central is no stranger to drought, the summer of 2011 was the hottest ever recorded in the region, and conditions like these may become the new norm.

As climate changes, the South Central U.S. is expected to experience more frequent and severe droughts. In light of these projected future conditions, the Department of Interior South Central Climate Science Center (CSC) is working to identify how drought will manifest itself in the region, and what these changing conditions will mean for both people and nature. In March 2016, a group of climate and ecological experts met to discuss the issue, and agreed on several core challenges that drought poses in the region:

 
1. Forecasted climatic changes will vary across this diverse region  Photo of the Pecos River, TX
The South Central region is comprised of a variety of ecosystems, from deserts in New Mexico to coastal marshes in Texas and Louisiana. Forecasted changes in temperature and precipitation are expected to vary across this diverse region. For example, the spring of 2011 was the wettest on record in the northern Great Plains, but was exceptionally dry in the southern Great Plains.
 
2. Reduced water availability will affect wildlife, ecosystems, and people
From coastal ecosystems that provide critical habitat to wildlife, sequester carbon, and support fisheries, to agriculture in the High Plains, reduced flows of freshwater will have wide-reaching ecological, economic, and cultural impacts. For example, reduced soil moisture can impact agriculture, while reduced river flow can increase the salinity of sensitive coastal ecosystems.
 
3. Land management practices will need to adapt to changing conditions
Image of the newsletter produced as a result of the workshop
Innovations in land management will be required to address the range of drought-related impacts. Management solutions will be challenged by the need to consider the cultural, economic, and ecological diversity of the region, but are vital if the cascading impacts of drought are to be mitigated. For example, in New Mexico, drought could result in increased tree mortality, providing additional fuel for wildfires. Areas impacted by fire are then at higher risk for flash floods, which transport large amounts of sediment downstream and can impact ecological and human communities alike.
 
This workshop was hosted in partnership by the South Central CSC (Climate Science Center), the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science Integration & Application Network, and the USGS National Climate Change and Wildlife Science Center.
 
The workshop was the fourth in a series of eight workshops being held across the U.S., each in a different region. Each workshop results in a brief informational document that synthesizes the current understanding of ecological drought in the region. Click the graphic on the right to view the informational document from the South Central workshop.

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