Our research unit based at The Jornada conducts science in support of the management and conservation of rangelands in the US and on other continents. About one-half of the world’s land surfaces are classified as rangeland, and our work has had national and global applications. In order to try and have applications you have to work from an understanding of key processes important to land management and its conservation. In arid environments, those processes can often play out slowly and/or infrequently. Therefore, one important aspect of our work is its long-term nature.
In our region, while it may look like it seldom changes, the Chihuahuan Desert is actually changing in one fashion or another all the time. Some changes are short term. For example, in one year we will have abundant rodent populations, and in a following year these animals may be all but non-existent. Some summers we will have wide spread occurrence of a native desert flower, like the yellow flowered desert marigold, and the next year it will be a white flowered desert zinnia. Other times, the dynamics can be much more long term in nature, like a shift that occurs over decades across a region in dominant vegetation from native grasses to desert shrubs. Changes, to a great extent, are part of a natural dynamic, like a prolonged drought followed by a series of higher rainfall years and the resulting impacts of these interwoven dry - wet periods. Some changes in past decades, though, have been a result of mismanagement and resulted in degradation, a phenomenon we term “desertification”.
Often these kinds of degradations are irreversible. However, nature is seldom straightforward and simple. One of the real values of long-term research is to be able to establish an understanding of natural, dynamic, inherent changes compared to those that are unintended and caused by human activities. This understanding will help us learn when we should try and intervene and work to impede or slow down a process, and when what we are experiencing is part of an expected variation where intervention may not be effective, useful, feasible, or economical.
The LTER program is accomplishing this with nearly 100 years of recorded data, and current projects strive to identify agents and dynamics of change.
To find out more about environmental changes in our rangeland environments, including new insights, and to learn more about LTER, click here.