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Climate variability, carbon, drought and fire, in arid-semi-arid ecosystems

Date: August 01, 2019

How does a land manager make decisions today that will impact landscapes decades into the future?


The photo shows a land management personel in a grassland setting in the Chihuahuan Desert with a controlled burn in the foreground.
Controlled burn in Chihuahuan Desert grassland at the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico. Photo credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Research

Using the best available science and tools, we can project the effects of today’s management actions on tomorrow’s non-forest vegetation assemblage, carbon, and productivity while considering changing climates. 

  1. How does a land manager make a decision today that will impact landscapes decades into the future? Researchers created a tool to provide land managers with worst-case and best-case scenarios under different conditions.
  2. Reducing concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHG) is a pressing environmental issue that has increased the necessity to quantify the exchange of GHG between terrestrial systems and the atmosphere. The Forest Service is using the Climate Change Scorecard to track progress on developing land management strategies in the context of climate change. Learn more: RMRS-GTR-316
  3. Land managers frequently use prescribed burning to help maintain grassland communities. Semiarid grassland dynamics following fire are linked to precipitation, with increasing soil moisture accelerating the rate of recovery. Prescribed fires are typically scheduled to follow natural fire regimes, but burning outside the natural fire season could be equally effective and more convenient for managers, depending on their management objectives. 

A map showing the potential vegitation types in New Mexico's Rocky Mountains region, represented by different colors.
ST-Sim simulation models were used to identify potential vegetation types in New Mexico’s Rocky Mountains region. Image credit: Matt Reeves

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Key findings

  • 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.
  • In the tool study we estimated the combined effects of differing levels of grazing and its interaction with current and potential vegetation assemblages. Our main findings indicate that years where droughts significantly impact forage reserve will more than double in the future, which can speed transitions from native bunchgrasses to exotic annuals if changes in the grazing regimes are not made. 
  • Prescribed fires are typically scheduled to follow natural fire regimes, but burning outside the natural fire season could be equally effective and more convenient for managers, depending on their management objectives.

A photo of a grassland dotted with juniper. A river runs through it, curving to the left around a rock formation sitting on a red dirt plateau.
ST-Sim projected many areas where grasslands may transition to juniper-dominated ecosystems. (Photo by Jack Triepke, U.S. Forest Service.)
A graph demonstrating the vegetation assemblages potential of shortgrass steppe, specifically juniper potential.
The figure demonstrates the ability to cross the differing climate scenarios for Central NM. We estimated the combined effects of differing levels of grazing and its interaction with current and potential vegetation assemblages. (Photo: Matt Reeves)

Featured Publications

Ford, Paulette L. ; Reeves, Matthew C. ; Frid, Leonardo , 2019
Ladwig, Laura M. ; Collins, Scott L. ; Ford, Paulette L. ; White, Laura B. , 2014


Principal Investigators: 
Forest Service Partners: 
Southwest Region 3 National Forest System
External Partners: 
CO-PI Scott Collins, Professor, UNM Biology Department
Tim Ohlert, Graduate Student, University of New Mexico
Sevilleta Long-term Ecological Research (LTER) Program
US Fish and Wildlife