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Defining Ecological Drought for the Twenty-First Century

Droughts of the twenty-first century are characterized by hotter temperatures, longer duration, and greater spatial extent, and are increasingly exacerbated by human demands for water. This situation increases the vulnerability of ecosystems to drought, including a rise in drought-driven tree mortality globally (Allen et al. 2015) and anticipated ecosystem transformations from one state to another—for example, forest to a shrubland (Jiang et al. 2013). When a drought drives changes within ecosystems, there can be a ripple effect through human communities that depend on those ecosystems for critical goods and services (Millar and Stephenson 2015).

For example, the “Millennium Drought” (2002–10) in Australia caused unanticipated losses to key services provided by hydrological ecosystems in the Murray–Darling basin—including air quality regulation, waste treatment, erosion prevention, and recreation. The costs of these losses exceeded AUD $800 million, as resources were spent to replace these services and adapt to new drought-impacted ecosystems (Banerjee et al. 2013). Despite the high costs to both nature and people, current drought research, management, and policy perspectives often fail to evaluate how drought affects ecosystems and the “natural capital” they provide to human communities. Integrating these human and natural dimensions of drought is an essential step toward addressing the rising risk of drought in the twenty-first century.

Part of the problem is that existing drought definitions describing meteorological drought impacts (agricultural, hydrological, and socioeconomic) view drought through a human-centric lens and do not fully address the ecological dimensions of drought. Redmond (2002) posed the question, “Like the tree falling in the forest, does drought occur if there is no human to record or experience it?” (p. 1144). Full text Article published in Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (3 January 2018)