USU Climate Action

kulmatiski grad doing roots research in the desert
We don't understand plant roots: How better root maps can predict plant growth, water cycling, and response to climate change

Vegetation composition and productivity have changed dramatically around the world in the past 50 years. These changes can have important effects on forage production, soil erosion, fire regimes, soil carbon and water cycling. In the western US alone, shrub encroachment in the last 30 years has caused $5 billion in lost forage production and management costs. While there are many potential explanations for these shifts, climate change is a likely culprit. Larger rain events and warmer temperatures are changing the way water moves through soil and plants. Some plants have or can create root distributions that can take advantage of these changes while others do not. Root distributions, therefore, are likely to be a central factor that determines how different plants respond to climate change. Unfortunately, existing root distribution data is too limited, indirect, or coarse to predict plant growth responses to climate change. We propose to address this knowledge gap using an emerging experimental approach. In the handful of sites it has been tested, this combined tracer-modeling approach has predicted plant abundance and response to climate change where previous approaches have failed. More specifically, we will use tracer injections to measure active root distributions. We will then use these active root distributions in an ecohydrological model to simulate water uptake and plant growth at 200 sites across the western US over the next century. Simulations will be performed for ‘no-management’ and ‘shrub-control’ ‘treatments’. Tracer experiments will be conducted in southern Utah, Nevada, and Montana to complement existing tracer data available from Washington, Idaho, and Utah. The proposed research will produce vegetation forecast maps for the western US that will indicate how forage production is likely to change across the landscape with or without shrub management. This will help ranchers and land managers anticipate changes in forage production and the consequences of shrub control. This will improve the connection of ecosystem health to managed system productivity.  

This work has been supported by the Utah Agricultural Experiment Station, the Institute of Land Water and Air, the Andrew Mellon Foundation and the National Science Foundation. Dr. Karen Beard (USU) is helping with field work and Dr. Kyle Palmquist (Marshall University) is helping scaling results up to the regional scale. 


Climate change and ecosystem functioning: reducing critical uncertainties about ecological acclimation
Ecosystem respond the climate change through a wide range of processes. Plants flower sooner in response to earlier snow melt, some may evolve drought tolerance when water becomes more scarce, and desert species will slowly colonize areas that are getting hotter. These processes of "ecological acclimation" maintain the functioning of ecosystems in the face of change. But current climate change is occurring so rapidly that some of these ecological acclimation processes will lag behind. We are working to understand which processes and which communities will lag behind climate change and what can be done to keep ecosystems functioning. To accomplish this, we've assembled a cross-disciplinary team of scientists who specialize in process across vastly different timescales. We are pulling knowledge from physiology, biogeochemistry, evolution, and paleoecology to get a complete picture of the future of ecosystems.

mccann students standing in water in front of butte in southern utah
Tribal Climate Change Talking Circles & Curriculum Co-Creation

Through a National Science Foundation grant led by Washington State University, USU Co-PI Dr. McCann formed a team to build relationships with Tribal members in the Colorado Plateau Region, host Indigenous Climate Change Talking Circles, and partner with the Native American Tribes Upholding Restoration and Education (NATURE) program at the Nature Conservancy’s Dugout Ranch in Bears Ears National Monument to co-create a climate change curriculum by and for Indigenous participants.

USU Graduate Researcher: Bayli Hanson

Core Project Staff and Partners: Sara Hinck, Danille Smiley, Amber Archie, Nichole Butler, Alix Pfennigwerth, Kristen Redd  


Native Community and Climate Views


Climate Change Curriculum Co-Creation