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Research Questions

Today's land managers, policy makers, and land users face an uncertain future.  Temperatures in the drylands of the western U.S. are predicted to increase up to 6°C, which will reduce soil moisture and water availability to plants, wildlife, and humans.  Most new energy development, including alternative sources, is expected to occur in the western U.S., which will result in large amounts of soil disturbance, wildlife habitat fragmentation, and water use demands. Recreation is increasing at a phenomenal rate. At the same time, human populations, and the demands they place on resources, are also skyrocketing in this region, and this pattern is expected to continue. To improve future decision- making and facilitate more informed choices in this region, we need to provide understanding on how future climate change (increasing temperatures and altered precipitation regimes), land use, invasives, altered fire cycles, and the interactions among these factors will affect ecosystems and the services they provide to human communities.

Focal Questions

1. What future changes in dryland ecosystems (including living organisms, soil, and water) are due to climate variability, climate change, land use (such as grazing, agriculture, energy exploration/development, recreation), invasion, fire, and the interaction among these factors? What species, human and natural communities, ecosystems, and soils in these regions are especially vulnerable to these changes?

In order to better manage western U.S. drylands, we need to understand what future changes are due to climate change and other relatively uncontrollable factors and what changes are due to management decisions. We also need to identify which natural resources; human communities and economies; water sources; and species of concern will be most vulnerable to future changes, and how we mitigate these impacts. Monitoring and experimental programs are needed that will enable us to ascertain the cause of observed changes and document what aspects of the ecosystems are most vulnerable to change.

2. In light of future changes, how will the land uses and users need to adapt in order to sustain human economies, health, and communities; ecosystem structure and function; soils; and species of concern;, and the resilience of these components to climate variability and change? 

Given future changes in climate, we need to understand how we might alter the type, timing, intensity or spatial distribution of land uses to better ensure sustainable use of natural resources in dryland regions and the survival of sensitive species. Research is needed to predict soil and ecosystem responses to alternative management scenarios and to determine how future climate and land uses interact to affect the capacity of land managers to meet their conservation objectives. We also require a deeper understanding of how climate and management decisions will affect the health of human and their communities in order to make more informed policy decisions.

3. How will future climate and land use independently and together impact the quality and quantity of water resources, including the Colorado River, and the ecosystems and humans dependent upon these resources?

Many climate and land use factors are likely to impact the quantity and quality of water resources at all scales in dryland regions, including from small streams and springs to the Colorado River. As almost 30 million people and $3 billion in agriculture depend on water coming from the Upper Colorado River watershed, understanding the linkages among water quality and quantity and climate variability, climate change, land use, invasion, fire, and the interaction among these factors is critical to the well-being of this region.

4. How do we effectively prioritize restoration of degraded systems and re-establish species of concern? What will be the restoration goals and what realistic techniques will work most effectively?

Given a much drier and hotter future, many of our current restoration techniques are likely to fail. Therefore, we need to develop new techniques, prioritize the areas needing restoration and to define success.