Detecting Ecosystem Stress at the Desert Experimental Range
In February 1933, President Herbert Hoover set aside 87 square miles of cold desert in western Utah "as an agricultural range experiment station." That station became known as the Desert Experimental Range (DER). As was the case for many experimental forest and ranges, the DER became an outdoor laboratory representative of a prominent ecosystem under stress with expectations that the research conducted there would have broad application.
Long-term experimental areas are being linked into networks in order to address questions about ecosystem stress at regional to global scales. For example, data from the DER were used in multi-site collaborations to assess ecosystem response to climate extremes. This work produced important contributions to our understanding of how natural systems respond to environmental stress.
In another study, data from 41 sites were used to test vegetation response to drought. Results demonstrated the broad-scale capacity for plant communities to match their water demand to fluctuations in water availability across a wide range of climatic conditions. Such results suggest resilience in biomes ranging from arid grasslands to wet forests. But results also suggest that this resilience will be tested as climatic conditions become more extreme.
In a related study, extreme drought caused changes to desert grasslands that were more severe than those observed for prairie grasslands, confirming collaborators' predictions that resilience would differs among ecosystems.
Another study showed that precipitation patterns, characterized by extremes in rainfall, result in decreased sensitivity to annual precipitation, limiting ecosystems' ability to use rain efficiently to sustain plant growth. Findings suggest that extremes in precipitation frequently produce negative effects and are as important as total annual precipitation in driving biome production.
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