The rapid onset and severity of the 2017 Northern Great Plains drought, which resulted in agricultural losses exceeding $2.6 billion, motivated a multi-agency investigation of drought-related coordination and management practices.
The 2017 flash drought arrived without early warning and devastated the U.S. Northern Great Plains region comprising Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and the adjacent Canadian Prairies. The drought led to agricultural production losses exceeding $2.6 billion in the United States, widespread wildfires, poor air quality, damaged ecosystems, and degraded mental health. These effects motivated a multi-agency collaboration among academic, tribal, state, and federal partners to evaluate drought early warning systems, coordination efforts, communication, and management practices with the goal of improving resilience and response to future droughts. This essay provides an overview on the causes, predictability, and historical context of the drought, the impacts of the drought, opportunities for drought early warning, and an inventory of lessons learned. Key lessons learned include: (1) building partnerships during non-drought periods helps ensure that proper relationships are in place for a coordinated and effective drought response; (2) drought information providers must improve their understanding of the annual decision cycles of all relevant sectors, including, and beyond, direct impacts in agricultural sectors; and (3) ongoing monitoring of environmental conditions is vital to drought early warning, given that seasonal forecasts lack skill over the Northern Great Plains.