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:
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.
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.
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.