Forests Across U.S. Face Drought Threat: Study


COLUMBUS, Ohio — A new analysis finds that almost all of America’s forests are vulnerable to increased drought and climate change. The study, which was published in February in the journal Global Change Biology, documents drought severity and frequency across the U.S.

The analysis “brings together many different perspectives on drought impact in forests, and it is through this effort that the great reach drought can have on forests is clear,” said co-author Stephen Matthews, assistant professor of wildlife landscape ecology at The Ohio State University.

Matthews is a faculty member in the School of Environment and Natural Resources, where he specializes in understanding the responses of biodiversity and ecological systems to changing landscapes. The school is in Ohio State’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.

In the study, titled “The impacts of increasing drought on forest dynamics, structure, and biodiversity in the United States,” Matthews and the other authors conclude that drought vulnerability extends beyond just the Western states to possibly include the entire U.S.

Drawing extensively on current understandings of the consequences of drought on forests, the authors examined growth and mortality patterns in Eastern and Western U.S. forests. 

“Systematically understanding the effects of drought on forests in different regions allows us to address how trees respond to evermore persistent and severer drought, which in turn demonstrates unique vulnerabilities based on forest conditions that can inform management options,” Matthews said.

The study reveals several areas where more work is needed to translate and project those impacts at the stand scale, where tree species interact to shape the overall response to drought.

“As we continue to disentangle these influences, we can begin to point to forest management strategies to impart resilience of forests to drought,” Matthews said.

New resource on adapting to climate change

Matthews also is one of the 77 scientists who contributed to a national assessment of peer-reviewed scientific research on the impacts of drought on U.S. forests and rangelands. The U.S. Forest Service published the assessment in February.

The 302-page report is called “Effects of Drought on Forests and Rangelands in the United States: A Comprehensive Science Synthesis.” A key message of the report is that there is a critical need to understand how drought affects forests and rangelands, in part because drought severity and drought-associated forest disturbances are expected to increase with climate change.

The assessment includes topics such as:

  • Drought characterization and predicting future drought.
  • Impacts on forest processes and disturbances.
  • Consequences on forest and rangeland values.

The document provides a valuable new tool to inform discussion, planning and implementation of adaptation strategies for land managers and policy makers, according to a U.S. Forest Service news release.

The report can be read at

CFAES News Team
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Stephen Matthews