EXTREME drought could become common in Scotland as climate change alters our weather over the next two decades, scientists suggest.

Research published by national agency NatureScot predicts that the number of extreme drought events could increase from an average of once in 20 years to one every three years.

Both the east and wests coasts will experience change and five areas across the country have been identified as “hotspot” zones most at risk.

These are the Borders, Aberdeenshire, Caithness, Orkney and Shetland.

The shift is expected to have a signficant impact on key economic sectors like forestry, agriculture and whisky production, as well as vital habitats and wildlife.

The west coast is predicted to remain wetter than the east.

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The findings were published on World Wetlands Day, which aims to raising global awareness about the vital role of wetlands for people and our planet. NatureScot says the work will help it take direct action to improve resilience to extreme weather events. 

Researcher Fairlie Kirkpatrick Baird 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.”

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.” 

She went on: “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.

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“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.”