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Examining ecosystem

By Emily C. Kelley

Jornada the premier place for desert ecology research

The Jornada Basin Long Term Ecological Research program received a $5.88 million grant from the National Science Foundation to continue funding the research program for a sixth six-year cycle in 2012. 

“The research is all about how the ecosystem in southern New Mexico is responding to short-term and long-term climate change, and the fundamentals of how plants interact with different components of the landscape,” said Curtis Monger, New Mexico State University professor of plant and environmental sciences and JRN LTER researcher. “There are feedbacks that let us learn more about this complex, adaptive system.”

The JRN LTER is a collaborative project involving NMSU’s College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, College of Arts and Sciences and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service. NMSU administers the grant with Deb Peters as the lead principal investigator.

JRN LTER scientists study the interplay of physical variables like wind, temperature, rain and various chemical elements, such as nutrients in the soil, and the biological or ecological engine sitting on top of the soil, which pulls nutrients up and carries on photosynthesis to make food sources, for not only the native animals, but also domestic animals.

Since the grant was awarded, 14 instrumentation sets have been installed at Net Primary Productivity sites. NPP sites are areas where one primary type of vegetation is prominent – such as the creosote bush community, or the mesquite or grassland communities at the Jornada – and the amount of carbon dioxide the vegetation there takes in during photosynthesis minus how much carbon dioxide the plants release during respiration, is monitored. The instrumentation sets are meteorological stations that measure wind speed, rainfall, solar radiation, humidity, light intensity, etc.

“In addition to that, at some of these sites, we are also measuring below ground because most of the range plants are beneath our feet,” Monger said. “They are, in a sense, like icebergs. We see the upper tip, but there’s this invisible component that’s subterranean. We’re trying to get a better understanding of that, so we have below ground instruments that measure temperature, moisture and carbon dioxide.”

Monger says the JRN LTER, the Very Large Array west of Socorro and Sunspot and Apache Point observatories are similar in that each site has visiting scientists who often travel great distances to do their scientific research there.

NMSU agronomy professor Curt Monger, left, and research site manager John Anderson check on one of several remote sensing stations located on the Jornada Experimental Range. Among other things, the stations measure wind speed and soil moisture content at varying depths. These data are collected and used to aid researchers in environmental studies of the region.

NMSU agronomy professor Curt Monger, left, and research site manager John Anderson check on one of several remote sensing stations located on the Jornada Experimental Range. Among other things, the stations measure wind speed and soil moisture content at varying depths. These data are collected and used to aid researchers in environmental studies of the region.

The JRN LTER, as now funded by the National Science Foundation, has existed since 1980. In addition to the 1982 starting period, this project was superimposed on the USDA Jornada Experimental Range, and what used to be the College Ranch, now the Chihuahuan Desert Rangeland Research Center. Scientific data has been collected at these sites since 1912, making the Jornada Basin LTER one of the oldest sites in the LTER network with a tremendous legacy of scientific research.

There are 26 LTER sites across the U.S. collecting data from marine systems like kelp forests off the California coast, to the arctic ecosystem in Alaska.

“The value of long-term ecological research is that it gives you a more complete analysis of how dynamic systems are. This provides the long-term continuity that is needed to see how these systems adjust, and how they work,” Monger said.

The JRN LTER also is part of the National Ecological Observatory Network, a continental-scale ecological observation system that allows researchers to use real – time data from ecological sites across the country, without leaving their offices.

“The main thing is that we have the place, we have the infrastructure, we have the history of doing the science, and so, in terms of desert science, this is one of the premier places on the planet,” Monger said.

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