A diagram about meteorological drought; decreased precipitation, increased temperature and increased evapotranspiration.

Drought affects millions of people and poses a threat to the resilience of the country’s ecosystems, which supports resources that people need and want, such as clean air and water, recreational opportunities, and forest products.  Drought affects local and regional economies through its effects on water resources for agricultural, ranching, and forestry operations, and supply of clean drinking water to municipalities. Drought also leads to more devastating wildfires, resulting in the loss of life and property, reduced economic activity, and greater cost of wildfire suppression.

Drought is a normal climatic function. However, drought is becoming increasingly more frequent. The negative effects of drought on forests and grasslands could take decades if not centuries to overcome.

Changes caused by drought are most obvious in the West.  For example, five consecutive years of drought in California killed over 100 million trees, and millions more trees were weakened and made more susceptible to insect and disease outbreaks. In eastern forests, drought is expressed in a less rushed process, mainly seen through slow decline and morbidity in some tree species.

Drought can put chronic stress on plants and ecosystem processes. Forests have an inherent resistance to drought and disturbance. But the key question is whether we are reaching a tipping point where stressors are of such magnitude that the ability of an ecosystem to recover is diminished.

Forest Service role in drought

The agency  is proactive in drought management and adaptation methods to actively respond to drought on the ground. Those methods include ways the agency:

  • Decreases forest stand density
  • Maintains the integrity of native plant population
  • Plants drought-tolerant species and genotypes
  • Protects trees that exhibit adaptation to water stress
  • Maintains tree seed inventories for a range of species
  • Promotes age class and structural diversity across the landscape.

Read more about how the Forest Service is responding to ecological drought.

The agency also participates in the National Drought Resilience Partnership, working with other federal agencies to build national capabilities for long-term drought resilience. The President tasked the National Drought Resilience Partnership (NDRP) to work collaboratively to deliver on a Federal Action Plan including six goals and 27 associated actions to promote drought resilience nationwide. Visit drought.gov for more information.

An image of a dry riverbed, showing the impact of drought in California from 2009 Drought Workshop Summaries

The Forest Service and USDA Climate Hubs convened regional workshops in each of the nine Forest Service regions throughout 2017. The workshops helped develop a set of local strategies and tactics to reduce, mitigate, and, in some cases, recover from the effects of drought. Summaries of these workshop proceedings, work group recommendations, and supporting documentation are available.

Drought Webinar Recordings and Summaries

The Forest Service also hosted a series of resource-specific webinars about the effects of drought and other water challenges facing our national forests and grasslands. Recordings and supporting materials are available, along with summaries of the presentation.

Drought Monitor

The United States Drought Monitor uses multiple data sources and monitoring information to build weekly drought maps, including reports on local drought impacts.

For More Information

A 2016 Forest Service publication describes drought characterization; drought impacts on forest processes and disturbances such as insect outbreaks and wildfire; and consequences for forest and rangeland values. Options to mitigate drought are also discussed. See Effects of drought on forests and rangelands in the United States: a comprehensive science synthesis