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Individual Highlight

Climate Change Impacts on Future Carbon Stores and Management of Warm Deserts of the United States

Photo of Nighttime warming experiment at the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico. This long-term experiment is designed to determine the effects of warmer nighttime temperatures on carbon fluxes in native desert grassland. Scott Collins, University of New MexicoNighttime warming experiment at the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico. This long-term experiment is designed to determine the effects of warmer nighttime temperatures on carbon fluxes in native desert grassland. Scott Collins, University of New MexicoSnapshot : Forest Service scientists summarized studies that focus on key components of carbon exchange across the warm deserts of North America to determine if common trends exist that can be used in management. Management strategies that increase carbon sequestration or decrease carbon loss are especially important towards reducing or reversing the rate of global climate change because they limit the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Principal Investigators(s) :
Ford, Paulette L.  
Research Location : Earlier work concentrated on the warm deserts of the United States- Mojave, Chihuahuan, Sonoran Deserts. The bulk of current research is located in the northern Chihuahuan Desert.
Research Station : Rocky Mountain Research Station (RMRS)
Year : 2015
Highlight ID : 832

Summary

Climate change is a pressing environmental issue that requires measuring the exchange of greenhouse gases between terrestrial systems and the atmosphere. Reductions in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration through enhanced terrestrial carbon storage may help slow or reverse the rate of global climate change. As a result, federal land management agencies, such as the USDA Forest Service, are now beginning to implement management policies to increase carbon storage. Throughout the southwestern United States, climate models project increased aridity and seasonal shifts in precipitation, along with more extreme precipitation events. Information regarding how these elements of climate change might affect the balance between carbon dioxide uptake and loss is lacking in forms available to land managers on semiarid rangelands. Forest Service scientists published a summary of studies that focused on key components of carbon exchange including photosynthesis, soil respiration and plant productivity across the warm deserts of North America to determine if common trends exist that can be utilized in management. They also provided an overview of how management practices can influence carbon sequestration in this region. Since desertification is projected to increase in the future, management strategies that increase carbon sequestration or decrease carbon loss are especially important. Xeric rangelands [lands adapted to a dry environment] tend to be in carbon balance or are small carbon sources, whereas more mesic rangelands [lands adapted to an environment having a greater supply of moisture] function primarily as carbon sinks. When warm desert rangelands do function as carbon sinks, it is for relatively short periods following adequate rainfall. This requires managers to consider management practices that do not impede carbon sequestration during critical times. The scientists provided an overview of how management practices influence carbon sequestration and discussed the USDA Forest Service Climate Change Scorecard, which addresses carbon sequestration and provides fundamental questions for managers to address when reporting on their accomplishments towards developing land management strategies in the context of climate change.

They also found that ungrazed desert grasslands remain carbon neutral over the long-term. This neutrality occurs because carbon is sequestered during infrequent high precipitation monsoon seasons, and is then slowly respired (released back into the atmosphere) over subsequent years. Shrub-dominated areas, including areas recently encroached by shrubs, tend to store carbon annually, even during a sequence of dry years that likely represent future patterns of climate change.

Forest Service Partners

External Partners

  • Deborah Finch, GSD Program Manager, RMRS
  • Matt Reeves, Research Ecologist, Human Dimensions (HD), RMRS
  • USDA Forest Service Western Wildland Environmental Threat Assessment Center
  • Amy Bennett, Graduate Student (current), University of New Mexico
  • Marcy Litvak, Associate Professor, UNM, Scott Collins, UNM Professor
  • Matthew Petrie, Graduate Student (former), University of New Mexico
  • Michell Thomey, Postdoctoral Associate, University of New Mexico (UNM)
  • and Sevilleta Long-term Ecological Research (LTER) Program