Risk of extreme droughts likely to increase in Scotland

02 February 2021

Scotland is likely to face an increase in the risk of extreme droughts over the next two decades as a result of climate change.

Leading research published by NatureScot shows that the number of extreme drought events across the country could increase from an average of one every 20 years to one every 3 years. 

As well as becoming more common, droughts could potentially last 2-3 months longer than in the past.
The research highlights the likelihood of substantial geographic variation in patterns of extreme drought risk, including identifying “hotspot” areas in the Borders, Aberdeenshire, Caithness, Orkney and Shetland.

The results indicate that while the west coast will remain wetter than the east, both areas are likely to experience increases in extreme droughts, with different implications for different areas based on habitat types and land use.

Extreme drought events can have wide-ranging impacts, including on water-dependent sectors such as agriculture, forestry and whisky production.

Many of our most precious habitats and species are also highly sensitive to changes in hydrology; for example, many wetland ecosystems are adapted to continual or frequent high water levels. Changes to these levels can reduce wetlands’ important role in the landscape, including filtering nutrients, absorbing carbon and slowing the flow of water.

The findings were published on World Wetlands Day (Feb 2) aimed at raising global awareness about the vital role of wetlands for people and our planet. The research will help NatureScot and others direct mitigation and management actions to improve resilience to extreme weather events. 

Francesca Osowska, NatureScot Chief Executive, said: “The findings of this innovative research are stark and demonstrate the urgency of the task before us if we are to ensure a nature-rich future for Scotland. 

“Enhancing and protecting nature is a key part of the solution to the climate emergency, and by identifying areas that may be at most risk we can focus conservation efforts to increase resilience and protect ecosystems.

“This year, new global targets to improve nature will be agreed at COP15. Along with the COP26 on climate change, this gives us a huge opportunity to address the many challenges and pressures that nature is facing.

“At NatureScot we are already working to ensure that some of our most precious landscapes are more resilient to drought. Our Peatland ACTION project for example has put more than 25,000 hectares of peatland on the road to recovery since 2012 with funding provided by the Scottish Government.

“We will continue to focus on these kinds of nature-based solutions that are so essential in tackling the climate emergency facing us all and look forward to working with land managers, Scottish Water and SEPA in developing this work.

“This research was led by one of our recent graduate placements and it’s excellent that this programme to support young people is bearing such tangible results.”

The research was undertaken by Fairlie Kirkpatrick Baird, one of NatureScot’s graduate placement staff, who said: “When we think of extreme climate events in Scotland, we usually think of flooding and storms, but droughts are increasing here too. As in the drought over the summer of 2018, we are already seeing the negative impacts that can have on human and ecological environments.

“This study clearly shows that an increase in extreme droughts, with wide-ranging implications, is likely and not just in the distant future, but over the next 20 years or so.

“While that is concerning, it provides us with vital knowledge that can help us address the climate and biodiversity emergencies. By predicting which areas in Scotland may be most affected, we can start to take targeted mitigation action and try and reduce any potential damage.”

David Harley, Head of Water and Planning at the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA), said: "As the authority responsible for regulating water use in Scotland, we are clear that understanding the effects of climate change on water resources is vital, and we welcome this report which will help manage future impacts on our biodiversity.

"It's important that work like this continues to be undertaken to further highlight the fact that, although Scotland may be famed for its wet weather, we remain at risk from drought and water scarcity due to the impact of climate change.

"Everyone has a role to play in managing our water environment, and SEPA will continue to develop an approach to water management that not only protects us from water scarcity in a changing climate but helps us reduce our consumption of resources to a level our planet can sustain."