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Debra Peters, a landscape ecologist affiliated with New Mexico State University's Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences and Department of Biology and a research scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service, is part of an international team of researchers whose findings have been published by Nature, one of the world's most prestigious science journals.
The article, "Ecosystem resilience despite large-scale altered hydroclimatic condition," was released Jan. 20 as a Nature advanced online publication and is slated to appear soon in the print edition.
Advanced online publication is reserved for a small set of top-quality articles that the journal editors feel need to be made available to other researchers and the public prior to the release of the print publication.
"The purpose of this study was to assess the likely impact, on vegetation in certain ecosystems, of the more extreme droughts and rising temperatures predicted for the future," Peters said.
"In practical terms, the conclusions from this and similar studies should be useful to resource managers as they develop realistic strategies for future agricultural production."
Peters heads up the Jornada Basin Long Term Ecological Research program, a joint endeavor involving NMSU's College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, College of Arts and Sciences and USDA/ARS.
Peters' primary contribution to the article involved providing relevant data from the Jornada Basin LTER and interpretation of those data. She also had a hand in the writing and editing.
Data relevant to the study included temperature and precipitation records, field estimates of vegetation productivity, and image-based information of land cover from aerial observations.
The lead author of the study is Guillermo Ponce-Campos, a scientist at the USDA/ARS Southwest Watershed Research Center and the University of Arizona. Other co-authors represented an array of research sites and universities around the U.S., as well as one in Australia.
Data sets for the study came from measurements made during the 2000-2009 period, the 10 warmest years since systematic temperature records were initiated in 1880.
The data were collected at 29 sites in the U.S., including Puerto Rico, and Australia. Environments included grasslands, shrublands, savannas and forests. Many of the U.S. sites are under the auspices of the USDA/ARS and U.S. Forest Service.
The main conclusion of the article is that, up to a critical point, plants in an ecosystem can adapt to extreme swings of water availability. The data analysis led researchers to the conclusion that ecosystem water-use efficiency increased in drier years; water demand fluctuated with water availability.
However, the analysis also suggested a trend of diminishing returns and that continued warming and drying trends will result in loss of resilience capability.
Predictions are that "water-limited, low-productivity grasslands" will be first ecosystems to display this downturn.
"In the United States, much of our agricultural productivity has depended on long-term precipitation regimes," said ARS Administrator Edward B. Knipling. "But those patterns are changing and we need information for managing the effects of those shifts. These findings can help managers respond to the challenges of global climate change with effective strategies for maintaining agricultural productivity."
Peters and most of the other co-authors on the Nature paper have also teamed up on a related paper, "Extreme precipitation patterns reduced terrestrial ecosystem production across biomes," to be published in the Journal of Geophysical Research - Biogeosciences.
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