In the world of climate change, dryland ecosystems could be condemned to drought’s lingering death. Woodland and plantlife could be hit by severe and sustained dry spells. When the rains come at last, recovery could be faltering and incomplete.
And very soon those species that do revive and resume growth could find themselves in unfamiliar company.
U.S. researchers have been looking, once again, at the long-term consequences of climate change and the damage to landscapes increasingly threatened by drought.
And, they write in Nature, more frequent droughts predicted for the future may not allow ecosystems enough time to recover before the next prolonged dry spell.
“There was a broad presumption that ecosystems and plants recovered almost immediately when the weather got wetter,” said William Anderegg, a biologist at the University of Utah. “We didn’t know what the patterns were globally, including which plants seemed to recover faster and which variables influenced that recovery time.”
The research team considered drought from three aspects. They defined a simple, meteorological drought that meant less than usual precipitation. They also considered the agricultural challenge: a dry spell impairs plant productivity. And then they considered drought as a hydrological problem: that moment when lakes, reservoirs and aquifers begin to dry up.
They considered the whole package of temperature, recent rainfall, soil moisture, and the vegetation’s demand for water.
They defined “recovery” from drought, not as the renewed growth with fresh rainfall, but the slower return of the whole ecosystem to the full productivity it demonstrated before the drought.
And they used satellite data to identify the patterns of recovery from some of the more severe droughts around the world, including the recent dry spell that parched California.
The research shows that recovery takes longest in the tropics and high northern latitudes, especially in the Russian Far East and Alaska, and that drought impacts increased throughout the 20th century. In some cases, they found, recovery could take longer than the period of the original drought. In some cases there may be no recovery.