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USU Ecologist Receives Prestigious NSF CAREER Award


Thursday, Feb. 24, 2011


USU ecologist Peter Adler
USU ecologist Peter Adler, whose research focuses on plant population and community dynamics, is the recipient of a 2011 CAREER award from the National Science Foundation.
field work documenting plants in research plot
USU researchers Pablo Oleiro and Lisa Barnes carefully document plants in a field research plot, repeating data collection methods used decades ago.

Utah State University plant ecologist Peter Adler is the recipient of a 2011 Faculty Early Career Development “CAREER” Award from the National Science Foundation. The NSF’s top grant program for early career development of junior faculty, CAREER Awards are given in recognition of demonstrated excellence in research, teaching and the integration of education and research.

 

“We’re delighted that Peter has received this highly competitive award,” says Nat Frazer, dean of USU’s College of Natural Resources. “The future of the university depends in large part upon the quality of faculty we are able to attract. As this award demonstrates, Peter is one who can help us secure a bright future for USU and the College of Natural Resources.”

 

CAREER awards provide funding for up to five years to support a recipient’s proposed research and teaching project. Adler, who investigates plant population and community dynamics, is trying to understand what causes different plant species to increase or decrease in abundance over time. He’s using clues from the past to forecast the effects of future climate change on plant communities.

 

“Increasing temperatures and altered precipitation regimes could lead to dramatic changes in rangeland vegetation,” says Adler, assistant professor in USU’s Department of Wildland Resources, who joined the university in 2006. “But we currently have little ability to predict these changes.”

 

Improving science’s ability to predict the effects of climate change, he believes, may lie in reams of weathered notes painstakingly compiled by early 20th century scientists.

 

“In the early 1900s, range scientists at government-funded field stations began establishing research plots and, every year, mapped the individual plants in each plot,” he says. “They meticulously recorded this information for decades.”

 

Adler has old datasets collected from the Kansas prairie, the sagebrush steppe of eastern Idaho, the northern mixed prairie of eastern Montana, Arizona’s sun-baked Sonoran desert along with New Mexico’s Chihuahan desert just north of Mexico.

 

“We’ll use old data to address contemporary questions about climate and interactions among plant species,” he says. “For example, ‘why do some plants thrive in certain conditions while others decline?’”

 

At the Idaho research site, near the town of Dubois and the Caribou-Targhee National Forest, Adler and his team of graduate and undergraduate students will conduct field experiments to test predictions based on the historical data about how different species respond to wet years and dry years.

 

“We’ll create drought plots with rain-out shelters and irrigated plots using water that comes off the roofs of those shelters,” he says. “Our model also makes predictions about how much grasses would increase in abundance if we removed neighboring shrubs or vice versa. We’ll test those predictions by manually removing all the grasses from some experimental plots and all the shrubs from others.”

 

The researchers’ work is labor-intensive but, Adler surmises, no harder than the efforts of their 20th century peers.

 

“The amount of time those researchers spent on their knees mapping these plots is amazing,” he says. “In fact, we know exactly how hard it is because we have been re-mapping the original plots, using the original techniques, since 2007.”

 

As his research progresses, Adler will conduct “distributed graduate seminars” to foster interaction between graduate students and land managers. Participants in the integrative, multi-campus seminars will summarize existing scientific information about the ecological impacts of climate change in sagebrush steppe for use by land managers.

 

“It’s an innovative way to integrate research, teaching and outreach,” he says. “We want to promote ongoing communication between researchers and land managers and develop long-lasting partnerships. Students will learn about management challenges and land managers will gain science-based solutions to real-world problems.”

 

Related links:

 

Contact: Peter Adler, 435-797-1021, peter.adler@usu.edu

Writer: Mary-Ann Muffoletto, 435-797-3517, maryann.muffoletto@usu.edu



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