How will this drought affect our local ecosystems? It’s hard to say. Resilience is the term ecologists use to describe how quickly ecosystems can bounce back from catastrophic events. The resilience of a particular ecosystem is generally determined by the health of the ecosystem along with its level of biodiversity. Areas with a wide variety of healthy plant and animal populations tend to be more resilient; any one catastrophe is unlikely to provide a fatal blow as some species will inevitably survive based on their unique set of traits. For example, a hurricane might knock down all the mature oak and pine trees in a Massachusetts forest, but the sun-loving trees that have been held in check in the forest understory such as beeches, cherries, and maples will soon grow and replace the damaged forest canopy. Such a forest would exhibit excellent resiliency. However if a forest has a compromised understory and contains trees that have been previously damaged by disease, human interference, or drought, the forest might take much longer to recover from hurricane-inflicted damage.
Our current drought is bordering the catastrophic and will put our local ecosystems’ resilience to the test. For the most part, our native plants will survive this drought. If we were facing multiple years of drought I’d be more concerned, but our native species are genetically wired to survive these tough times. Leaves will fall earlier (and probably won’t have as robust colors), the fall flowers will be fewer, and we may see a decrease in the nut and berry crop. But the vast majority trees and plants we see around us today will survive the winter and rebound in the spring (provided the drought doesn’t persist).
For most of our terrestrial animals, a hot, dry summer is no different than a tough winter: it’s difficult and certain populations will dip, but it’s not a catastrophe. Animals have to work a little harder to find water (chimpunks for example like to raid vegetable gardens for fruits with high water content like tomatoes and squashes) and typical fall foods (berries, acorns, fruit) may not be readily available.
Unfortunately, humans place undue burden on our local ecosystems and reduce their resilience. The eradication of large predators has led to the robust deer population that has severely damaged our forest understory. We draw our drinking water from local wetlands and watersheds exacerbating drought conditions. There are only so many stressors our ecosystems can handle before they begin to fall apart.
Now all we need is some rain.