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Northwest climate change is target of $3.2M in grants to University of Oregon

Climate change in the Northwest is the focus of two federal grants totaling $3.2 million awarded to two University of Oregon researchers. They will work together on a pair of multi-site projects designed to help enhance biodiversity while protecting people and property from wildfires in the face of a changing climate.

Scott D. Bridgham, an ecologist in the UO's Center for Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, will lead an effort to understand potential threats to prairie ecosystems in Oregon and Washington with a $1.8 million, four-year grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. The project will involve a series of 23-foot climate-controlled circles of prairie vegetation on properties owned by The Nature Conservancy in the Puget Trough near Olympia, Wash., the Rogue River Valley outside Medford, Ore., and the Willamette Valley west of Eugene. The three sites form a natural climate gradient of temperature and precipitation, upon which climate-change treatments will be imposed.

Bart Johnson, professor of landscape architecture, will lead a four-year, $1.4 million project funded by the National Science Foundation targeting Oregon's Willamette Valley, where population is projected to double in 40 years. Urban growth into rural areas is expected to raise the vulnerability to wildfires for more people and properties under climate-driven changes. Researchers will model the effects of a variety of changes in ecosystems, wildfire, land use and land management in different areas of the Willamette Valley. One goal is to explore whether restoring historic oak savanna and prairie can be used as a successful defense against catastrophic wildfires.

Researchers will "couple" their biophysical model of climate-driven changes in vegetation and fire with a model of how decision makers on individual land parcels respond to climate, land-use regulation and incentives, land markets, perceived fire hazard, land management costs and aesthetics. The focus will be on two small areas in the valley, one around several rural towns and the surrounding countryside and one adjacent to a larger metropolitan area.

"Climate change is likely to have major impacts on wildfire, biodiversity and people in the Pacific Northwest," Johnson said. "Predicting the effects of climate change on people and ecosystems, though, is difficult because of the uncertainties not just about the magnitude of climate change, but about how ecosystems will respond to those changes and, in turn, how people will respond to those changes in ecosystems."

Johnson and Bridgham will collaborate under both grants. The NSF project involves an interdisciplinary team that includes researchers from the UO, Oregon State University and the U.S. Forest Service. Researchers will gather data and build comprehensive modeling systems that explore possible ranges of climate-change outcomes. They will model all combinations of two very different climate-change scenarios, two very different land-growth scenarios, and two sets of policies that could guide how people can protect themselves and their property from wildfire.

Other UO researchers on the NSF project include David Hulse, a Philip H. Knight Professor, and Robert Ribe, head of the Institute for a Sustainable Environment, both of whom also are in the department of landscape architecture. The team also includes John P. Bolte, head of OSU's department of biological and ecological engineering, and Ron Neilson, a Forest Service climate modeler and courtesy professor of biosphere modeling at OSU. Bolte received $300,000 under the grant. Students from several different disciplines will have roles in the research.

"What we are trying to do is help society develop land-use and management policies that are robust against the uncertainties that accompany climate change," Johnson said. "We want to identify policies that will protect people from wildfire while conserving and protecting biodiversity."

The DOE project involves intensive studies of 12 native plant species that currently exist with range limitations in the Pacific Northwest. Some are found no further south than southern Oregon, others no further north than Washington's Puget Sound. They serve as indicators of climate-change impacts on other native plant species, Bridgham said.

Such impacts also will be examined for the entire suite of native and exotic plants that occur in the research plots. Half of the plots at each site will be warmed above ambient conditions up to 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit using infrared lamps that emulate the physical mechanism of climate warming. Sprinklers will distribute 25 percent additional water above each year's annual rainfall in half of the plots to test combinations of warming and precipitation. The changes reflect projections for the next century; temperatures are expected to rise and rainfall is likely to increase in winters but give way to summer droughts.

"We will be looking at the effects of climate change on range distributions of plant species, particularly in upland prairies," said Bridgham, who will pursue the project with Johnson, a co-investigator on the grant. "These prairies were once widespread in this part of the Northwest but through a variety of reasons it is estimated that only about 2 percent still exist. They are imperiled ecosystems as are the species within them. On top of that we have climate change to deal with. This study is about biodiversity, and how these already stressed plant communities will handle climate change."

All sites are on lands managed by The Nature Conservancy, which holds many of the best remnants of native prairies in the region. Researchers will focus on the growth, reproduction and mortality of the plant species, factors which ultimately will control their range distributions under future climate change. Each of the three sites will contain 20 experimental circles.

"The Nature Conservancy has many areas where it wants to restore or manage biodiversity," Bridgham said. "However, most conservation strategies are based on what exists today in terms of regional species distributions. Our hope is to help manage the continuation of today's biodiversity into the future."


Contact: Jim Barlow
University of Oregon

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Northwest climate change is target of $3.2M in grants to University of Oregon
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