drought recovery
This map shows global drought recovery times in months across the world. Woods Hole Research Center/NASA

One of the expectations climate scientists have for a future including climate change is more droughts in some regions and now a new study in Nature shows that slow ecosystem recovery from those droughts may become more normal too. The study published last week in the journal Nature examines drought frequency and recovery times.

The key finding of the study was that the time between droughts will likely become shorter than the time needed for areas to recover from drought, according to the lead author on the study, Christopher Schwalm who works at the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts.

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The discoveries of the study were made by first examining the drought recovery times of various regions around the world. While the recovery times can be difficult to predict the researchers used data on the climate and carbon cycle dynamics, as well as biodiversity and CO2 fertilization to do so reliably. This showed that recovery took longest in the high northern latitudes and in the tropics, regions where the climate system is already vulnerable, but that it was taking longer across regions worldwide.

By modeling the observed changes in drought recovery times with “business as usual” circumstances for future conditions, meaning assuming greenhouse gas emission trends continued as they have, the researchers were able to predict the future recovery times of droughts. What they found is that the droughts will likely become more frequent and there will likely be less time between them in the future.

This is where the shorter recovery times come in. When the ecosystems in the drought-prone regions don’t have enough time to recover after a drought, they begin to fail. Additionally the researchers note that the drought frequency paired with longer recovery time could lead to tree death and thus a lowered ability of the region to absorb carbon from the atmosphere, further increasing greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere.

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The study used a variety of data from remote sensing, field data and system modeling to study current recovery rates and model future recovery rates. All of it showed that recovery times are shortening and likely will continue to in the future.

Imaging from space thanks to NASA instruments helped the researchers involved in the study watch forests and other ecosystems from space recover over time. "Some of these ecosystems recover, but, with increasing frequency, others do not. Data from our 'eyes' in space allow us to verify our simulations of past and current climate, which, in turn, helps us reduce uncertainties in projections of future climate," said Josh Fisher, a co-author on the study who works at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in a release.