Colorado State University Leads National Grasslands Drought Study

U.S. team will be directed by CSU leaders.

Published on: Mar 16, 2012

A Colorado State University biologist will lead a national team that will experimentally impose severe  drought in the Great Plains grasslands and evaluate how the landscape responds – the first large-scale project of its kind.

The National Science Foundation has awarded $3.7 million to Alan Knapp, a biology professor and senior ecologist with the Grade Degree Program in Ecology at CSU and principal investigator on the project.

He will lead a team with Melinda Smith at Yale University, who will soon join the CSU faculty; Scott Collins at the University of New Mexico; and Yiqi Luo at the University of Oklahoma.

Colorado State University Leads National Grasslands Drought Study
Colorado State University Leads National Grasslands Drought Study

The project is an outcome of a research working group supported by CSU's School of Global Environmental Sustainability."

In six grasslands – two each in Kansas and New Mexico, and one each in Colorado and Wyoming – the scientific team will install slanted roofs over areas the size of small garden plots and take the same measurements to monitor ecological change.

The roofs help simulate severe drought on the ground similar to that of the 1930's dust  bowl era.

"There are questions about how climate change is likely to impact ecosystems that are best addressed by looking at multiple ecosystems simultaneously," Knapp explains.

"Typically, scientists have worked individually on these issues. We all conduct independent studies and we all measure different responses. Thus, we can never be sure if the ecosystems are behaving differently themselves because often our studies are difficult to compare.

"The large scale  experiment is designed to overcome that problem."

What is a common forecast for the future of grasslands? "Warmer temperatures are expected along with changes in rainfall patterns leading to more frequent and more severe weather extremes," says Knapp.

That scenario may include severe droughts that are more intense and last longer than they have in the past, he adds.