How Increasing Drought Threatens Most U.S. Forests And Households

It's not just a West Coast problem.
Phillippe Diederich via Getty Images

It turns out that California is not alone in its five-year struggle against the devastating effects of drought.

A new paper, published this week in the peer-reviewed journal Global Change Biology, shows that increasing drought not only affects Western forests, but forests and cities nationwide.

The drought's effects include a change in the biodiversity and number of plants and animals that live in forests and the deaths of entire communities of trees, said James Clark, professor of global environmental change and statistical science at Duke University and lead author of the paper.

"Essentially, all goods and services that we value from forests depend on climate, including wood and fiber products, wildlife, ample supply of clean water and recreation," Clark said. "Droughts have not only direct effects on reduced forest productivity, but also large effects through interactions with wildfire and insect outbreaks."

Additionally, 60 million Americans rely on drinking water that comes from 193 million acres of national forest and grasslands -- these forests also support 200,000 jobs and contribute more than $13 billion to local economies every year, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement.

“Our forests and rangelands are national treasures, and because they are threatened, we are threatened."”

- U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack

The paper, authored by scientists from 14 different research institutions, assessed previous data and studies on the consequences of drought. The scientists used those studies to gauge how increasing drought affected the continental U.S. in the last 20 years.

Clark noted, however, that it will be difficult to anticipate how much forests will change across the country in the next 20 to 40 years. The researchers concluded that droughts are likely to become more severe, frequent and prolonged across much of the U.S. due to varied rainfall. They also found that climate change is happening too quickly for tree populations to respond, according to the National Science Foundation.

This will affect U.S. households, even in urban areas, Clark said.

"Droughts are already having a big impact on recreation, landscaping and individual water use," he said. For instance, drought-prone cities may have to adopt more landscaping techniques that reduce or eliminate the need for water.

Our individual gardening practices will have to shift to plants that can tolerate drought, Clark said -- yet temperatures will also rise nationwide if there are fewer trees.

"Forested parks cool cities by transpiring water, just like you cool yourself by sweating. When you enter a city park, the temperature can decrease by as much as 5 degrees due to this vaporization of water," he explained. "The problem is that trees may require too much water as drought becomes more frequent. As trees are replaced, there can be more heating, because drought-adapted plants use less water, reducing the cooling effect."

The new paper was part of a larger report conducted and released by the U.S. Forest Service this month to help understand how to manage the forests and grasslands most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

"Our forests and rangelands are national treasures, and because they are threatened, we are threatened," Vilsack said in the statement. "This report confirms what we are seeing, that every region of the country is impacted by the direct and indirect effects of drought conditions and volatile weather patterns."

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