Drought, a recurring phenomenon with major impacts on both human and natural systems1,2,3, is the most widespread climatic extreme that negatively affects the land carbon sink2,4. Although twentieth-century trends in drought regimes are ambiguous5,6,7, across many regions more frequent and severe droughts are expected in the twenty-first century3,7,8,9. Recovery time—how long an ecosystem requires to revert to its pre-drought functional state—is a critical metric of drought impact. Yet the factors influencing drought recovery and its spatiotemporal patterns at the global scale are largely unknown. Here we analyse three independent datasets of gross primary productivity and show that, across diverse ecosystems, drought recovery times are strongly associated with climate and carbon cycle dynamics, with biodiversity and CO2 fertilization as secondary factors. Our analysis also provides two key insights into the spatiotemporal patterns of drought recovery time: first, that recovery is longest in the tropics and high northern latitudes (both vulnerable areas of Earth’s climate system10) and second, that drought impacts11 (assessed using the area of ecosystems actively recovering and time to recovery) have increased over the twentieth century. If droughts become more frequent, as expected, the time between droughts may become shorter than drought recovery time, leading to permanently damaged ecosystems and widespread degradation of the land carbon sink.

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Funding for this research was provided by the National Science Foundation (NSF) grant DEB EF-1340270. C.R.S. was also supported by National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) grants NNX12AK12G, NNX12AP74G, NNX10AG01A and NNX11AO08A. J.B.F. contributed to this paper from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with NASA. Government sponsorship acknowledged. Support was provided to J.B.F. by NASA grants NNN13D504T (CARBON), NNN13D202T (INCA), and NNN13D503T (SUSMAP). Funding for the MsTMIP activity was provided through NASA grant NNX10AG01A. Data management support for preparing, documenting and distributing model driver and output data was performed by the Modeling and Synthesis Thematic Data Center at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (http://nacp.ornl.gov), with funding through NASA grant NNH10AN681. Finalized MsTMIP datasets are archived at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory Distributed Active Archive Center (http://daac.ornl.gov). This is MsTMIP contribution number 10.

Author information


  1. Woods Hole Research Center, Falmouth, Massachusetts 02540, USA

    • Christopher R. Schwalm
  2. Center for Ecosystem Science and Society, Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, Arizona 86011, USA

    • Christopher R. Schwalm
    •  & George Koch
  3. Department of Biology, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah 84112, USA

    • William R. L. Anderegg
  4. Department of Global Ecology, Carnegie Institution for Science, Stanford, California 94305, USA

    • Anna M. Michalak
    •  & Yuanyuan Fang
  5. Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, 4800 Oak Grove Drive, Pasadena, California 91109, USA

    • Joshua B. Fisher
  6. DendroLab and Graduate Program of Ecology, Evolution, and Conservation Biology (EECB), University of Nevada-Reno, Reno, Nevada 89557, USA

    • Franco Biondi
  7. Department of Biology, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, New Mexico 87131, USA

    • Marcy Litvak
  8. Informatics and Computing Program, Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, Arizona 86011, USA

    • Kiona Ogle
  9. Rocky Mountain Research Station, US Forest Service, Ogden, Utah 84401, USA

    • John D. Shaw
  10. Arable Labs Inc., 40 North Tulane Street, Princeton, New Jersey 08542, USA

    • Adam Wolf
  11. School of Earth Sciences and Environmental Sustainability, Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, Arizona 86011, USA

    • Deborah N. Huntzinger
  12. National Snow and Ice Data Center, Boulder, Colorado 80309, USA

    • Kevin Schaefer
  13. Environmental Sciences Division, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Oak Ridge, Tennessee 37831, USA

    • Robert Cook
    •  & Yaxing Wei
  14. School of Forest Resources, University of Maine, Orono, Maine 04469, USA

    • Daniel Hayes
  15. Atmospheric Sciences and Global Change Division, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Richland, Washington 99354, USA

    • Maoyi Huang
  16. Department of Atmospheric Sciences, University of Illinois, Urbana, Illinois 61801, USA

    • Atul Jain
  17. International Center for Climate and Global Change Research and School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama 36849, USA

    • Hanqin Tian


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C.R.S. and W.R.L.A. designed the analysis. C.R.S. carried out the analysis and wrote the manuscript with contributions from all authors. W.R.L.A., A.M.M. and J.B.F. contributed to the framing of the paper. D.N.H. is the overall lead of the MsTMIP effort; R.C., J.B.F., A.M.M., K.S., C.R.S., Y.F. and Y.W. serve as the MsTMIP core team. D.H., M.H., A.J. and H.T. contributed to MsTMIP results.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Christopher R. Schwalm.

Reviewer Information Nature thanks M. Migliavacca and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Publisher's note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

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