Global Change in Semi-Arid Rangelands: Ecosystem Responses and Management Adaptations
Rangeland Resources Research
Project Number: 5409-11000-005-00
Start Date: May 01, 2010
End Date: Apr 30, 2015
The semi-arid grasslands of the western Great Plains, mixed-grass prairie and shortgrass steppe, provide a tremendous array of ecosystem services, including livestock forage, a diversity of native plants and animals, resistance to biological invasion, and carbon storage. Global change is expected to dramatically change grasslands and associated ecosystem services, but the nature of its impacts, and the mechanisms underlying those impacts, remain difficult to predict. In water-limited ecosystems, elevated CO2 and warming can have particularly strong and complex effects because, in addition to their direct effects, they alter water availability. Two main objectives will drive our research program over the next five years to understand how these changes might impact the ecosystem services of western rangelands. The first objective is to assess effects of predicted global changes on ecosystem services in a northern mixed-grass prairie. This will be accomplished by determining the effects of temperature, CO2 and precipitation on plant productivity, plant diversity, forage quality, community composition, weed invasion and the ability of native plant communities to recover from disturbance. The biogeochemistry underlying these responses will be studied to improve our understanding of ecosystem responses and to improve algorithms in biogeochemical models like Daycent. We will also evaluate whether and how responses of invasive species differ from those of native species. Our second objective is to develop knowledge and tools that allow rangeland managers to minimize greenhouse gas emissions. We will determine how temperature, CO2 and precipitation influence land-atmosphere exchanges of trace gases and soil carbon (C) storage, and evaluate the relative importance of water, nitrogen (N) and C limitation in regulating C storage. We will use this information plus additional soil C and CO2 flux data from long-term grazing experiments to determine the potential to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions through grazing management, and assess tradeoffs between mitigation and rangeland productivity.
To address our first objective concerning the responses of rangelands to global changes, we will use a well-replicated Free Air CO2 Enrichment (FACE) and warming experiment to determine how global change influences the northern mixed-grass prairie. We will examine responses of plant production and quality, composition of native plant communities, carbon and nitrogen cycling, and plant invasion. To understand the mechanisms underlying these responses, we will make extensive use of gas exchange, stable isotope, soil water and nitrogen monitoring, and computer simulation methods. We will use additional treatments to learn how seasonality of precipitation influences the northern mixed-grass prairie, and how the magnitude of those effects compares to effects of CO2 and warming. To address our second objective concerning greenhouse gas mitigation tools, we will measure soil respiration and fluxes of nitrous oxide (N2O) and methane (CH4) using static chambers, and net ecosystem CO2 exchange (NEE) using dynamic chambers within plots of the FACE, warming and irrigation manipulative experiment. Results from the static and dynamic chambers will allow us to quantify CO2-enrichment and warming effects on soil trace gas fluxes and ecosystem level CO2 fluxes, and how these fluxes are related to soil moisture and other environmental factors. We will also take advantage of three ongoing NP215 long-term grazing studies to assess the effects of grazing management strategies (stocking rate and season of use) on the size and dynamics of soil C and N pools, and the potential of these strategies to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions in NMP and SGS. We will use natural variation in precipitation to determine the relative influence of above- and below-average years of precipitation on C and N pool changes. The insights provided by these experiments will help scientists and land managers adapt management practices to sustain ecosystem services in the face of global change, and provide critical information for policy makers.