Study Maps Out Effects of Drought on People and Ecosystems

Local researchers publish article in BioScience that examines consequences of drought on aquatic life

U.S. Geological Survey scientists from across the nation, including several based in Glacier National Park, have been conducting cutting-edge research into what they characterize as the “slow-onset disaster” of drought, and recently published a study mapping out a new approach to measure the consequences of drought on freshwater ecosystems.

The work, titled “A New Integrated Science Approach to Determine Drought Effects on Freshwater Life,” was recently published in the journal “BioScience,” and its authors include U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) ecologists Clint Muhlfeld and Joe Giersch, who are based at the agency’s Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center in Glacier National Park, as well as former USGS biologist Ryan Kovach.

“The current way we study drought has always been built around how people use water and not about other important resources, such as aquatic life,” Kovach, the lead author, said. “The approach we describe takes a more comprehensive, holistic examination of drought effects and in doing so it provides that framework that will allow us to begin describing consequences of drought for all life.”

In the article, the authors promote establishing “drought observation networks” that look at both a river’s hydrology and biology, which will help address management needs for a wider range of decisions, including impacts to threatened and endangered species, as well as human health and safety.

“Our approach addresses the missing drought research and monitoring pieces across freshwater ecosystems. Obtaining this information is critical for informing pro-active drought adaptation strategies that accommodate the needs of aquatic species and people in the 21st century and beyond,” Muhlfeld, who is a member of the USGS Drought Team, said. “Information on drought effects is particularly lacking for species living in headwater streams, such as trout and salmon, which have enormous cultural, economic and ecological value worldwide.”

The authors note that the lack of information regarding drought events in headwater streams is particularly concerning given that more than 100 threatened or endangered aquatic species depend on these stream environments. For example, headwaters are important areas for numerous freshwater fish and serve as sources of nutrients to aquatic life downstream, according to the study. The study characterizes headwaters as “ecological blind spots” because wildlife and land managers don’t have enough information to assess species’ vulnerability to drought in river headwaters.

The new approach encourages using an array of science and tools to help decision-makers manage and offset effects of increased drought across the nation, and is being implemented in several river basins in Appalachia, the Rocky Mountains and the Great Basin to advance the USGS Integrated Drought Science Plan released in 2017.

Muhlfeld and other USGS scientists from a variety of disciplines developed the plan as a forward-looking map for understanding the complexity of drought issues and the impact of drought on people and natural systems.

“Drought is a slow-onset disaster, and understanding its impacts to prepare drought-resilience actions is critical,” USGS scientist and Drought Coordinator Andrea Ostroff said. “The key to helping offset its often-devastating effects on people, the economy and the environment is to provide managers with comprehensive science-based information for their decisions.”

The plan lays out a comprehensive response to stakeholders’ needs and to inform effective, research-based decisions and actions to help communities and natural areas adapt to and offset the effects of drought.

“Over the past several years, many regions in the United States have experienced extreme drought conditions, fueled by prolonged periods of reduced precipitation and exceptionally warm temperatures,” Muhlfeld said. “As global temperatures continue to rise, the frequency, intensity and duration of droughts are predicted to increase across many regions of North America, with enormous consequences for people and natural ecosystems.”

The drought science plan, said Muhlfeld, represents a new path forward toward understanding drought processes and impacts on humans and ecosystems to build effective national drought-resilience capabilities.

In 2016, President Obama signed a memorandum directing federal agencies to build national capabilities for long-term drought resilience, and tasked the National Drought Resilience Partnership to work collaboratively to deliver a federal action plan. The action plan identified USGS as an essential agency for this because of its scientific capabilities to address drought issues directly or indirectly at regional and national levels.

Ostroff said the plan brings to bear the agency’s considerable expertise in numerous scientific disciplines to understand complex interactions that determine drought and drought effects.

“Ultimately, this coordinated and integrated approach will help the nation prepare for and cope with drought to protect human health and safety, natural ecosystems, national security, the economy and quality of life in changing world,” according to the plan.

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