LAS CRUCES, N.M. (AP) — A researcher working at the Jornada Experimental Range in southern New Mexico has been awarded funding from the National Science Foundation for her part in a large study on summer rainfall patterns.
The study will look at how changes in the amount and timing of monsoons are likely to affect vegetation and fire frequency in the Southwest.
New Mexico State University announced Friday that Debra Peters was awarded $400,000 for her work on vegetation modeling.
Peters, a landscape ecologist at the Jornada range and an NMSU affiliated faculty member, said the project will help provide scenarios of vegetation change resulting from climate change.
“The most effective way to make those predictions is through simulation models developed from long-term data collected in this region, in some cases for over 100 years,” Peters said. “Long-term data provide the historical context for understanding and predicting the future.”
She plans to take the predictions of colleagues involved in the climate modeling — including temperatures and moisture projections — and incorporate that data along with geographic and biological information in a computer modeling tool that predicts where and how robustly grass and shrub species will grow.
The $2.95 million collaborative research project is headed by Russell Munson, an ecology professor at the University of Arizona.
In addition to Peters, the project involves more than a dozen researchers from Arizona, the University of Utah, the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Center for Atmospheric Research and two Sonoran universities.
Much of Peters’ recent research has focused on the interaction of grasses and shrubs. The balance between those types vegetation can affect air and water quality, forage production and the likelihood and severity of major wildfires.
One focus of the new project will be predicting the likelihood that invasive grasses will encroach into the Chihuahuan Desert.
Cheat grass, buffalo grass and Lehman’s grass, which have established themselves in the lower Sonoran Desert of Arizona and northern Mexico, are likely suspects.
Peters said the current mix of grasses and shrubs in the Chihuahuan Desert is a much less volatile ground cover than the invasive grasses in the Sonoran Desert.
One possible scenario Peters and her colleagues will be evaluating is that climate changes in the Chihuahuan Desert will entail more spring moisture, which she thinks would be key to the future success of the nonnative grasses in New Mexico.