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Climate and Land Use Change Research and Development Program

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Project Archives

These projects represent previous and/or completed research efforts from the Research and Development Program.

Alaskan Quaternary Climate ChangeTom Ager
This project involves reconstruction of the late Pleistocene and Holocene history of environmental change in Alaska, focusing upon the past 50,000 years. High latitude ecosystems are highly sensitive to climatic change. Understanding the history of environmental responses to past climate changes provides a basis for forecasting future responses to a variety of possible climatic scenarios. Information derived from this study has applications to ecology, paleoecology, paleoclimatology, archeology, vertebrate paleontology, and other fields. Understanding ecosystem history is also crucial for proper management of national forests, national and state parks, and wildlife refuges.

Assessing Population Projections for Beaufort Sea Polar Bears — Todd Attwood
The polar bear is recognized worldwide as a vulnerable species due to global warming induced loss of its required sea ice habitats. USGS science played a central role in informing the 2008 decision by the Department of the Interior to list the polar bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. This science was founded in understanding gained from long-term studies of the southern Beaufort Sea (SB) population, one of 19 worldwide, and one of only two populations with long-term data. In these studies, USGS documented a negative relationship between length of the open water season over the continental shelf and population growth rate. Applying future sea ice conditions, as projected from climate models developed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to the relationship between sea ice availability and population growth rate allowed us to project a future trajectory of the population. In this current project supported by CLU R&D, we are monitoring the survival and habitat use of the SB population to determine (i) whether available habitat changes as projected and (ii) how observed changes influence population dynamics. Information about how polar bears in this population respond to sea ice loss will inform projections for the worldwide population.

Atlantic Estuaries: Chesapeake BayDeb Willard
Eastern U.S. estuaries have common environmental problems: degraded water quality, loss of wetlands and riparian zones, sea-level rise, sedimentation, coastal erosion, declining fish and wildlife populations, loss of sub-aquatic vegetation (SAV) and increased algal blooms. Population growth, urban sprawl, intensified agriculture, and climate change exacerbate these. Mitigation of estuarine issues requires understanding of ecological, physical, and chemical changes due to climate variability and anthropogenic factors, the influence of regional geological framework, and impacts of land-use changes in watersheds and coastal zones. This project provides a scientific basis for resource managers and other policy-makers to address these issues. The initial work was in Chesapeake Bay, and eventually it will shift to other mid-Atlantic estuaries (possibly including, but not limited to, Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds, Chicoteague, and Delaware Bay) and apply techniques developed in Chesapeake Bay to issues in those estuaries.

Climate Change in Western U.S. Dryland Regions — Jayne Belnap
This project works to understand how the future hot and dry conditions forecasted for the southwestern US may affect plants, soils, and nutrient cycling in different vegetation types with and without surface disturbing activities (e.g., livestock, energy development). This information enables better predictions of future forage base and habitat for wildlife and livestock. Information is obtained by imposing experimental drought on the dominant plants on major soil types that characterize the Colorado Plateau, including comparison of shrubs with grasses with varying degrees of drought-tolerance on both coarse and fine soils at different elevations and under differing land use. Plant and soil responses are measured at these sites and compared to control sites to improve our ability to forecast vegetation response to different climate scenarios.

This project also measures factors influencing dust production, its deposition on nearby mountain snowpack, its influence on snowmelt and the quantity, quality, and timing of water entering major rivers.

Climate Effects Network (CEN)
Climate Effects Network (CEN) is a consortium of observation and research programs that collect, share, and use data, models, and related information to assess climate impacts on ecosystems, resources, and society. CEN provides network coordination, data management, enhanced funding for existing monitoring programs, and new data collection to create a national scientific capacity that is "greater than the sum of the parts." The CEN makes ecosystem data, models, and related information freely available to empower scientists, resource managers, policy makers, and the public to make scientifically-informed decisions. The result is an "early warning system" for forecasting changes in the Nations environmental resources as a result of climate change.

Coastal Marsh Response to Climate and Land Use Change — Glenn R. Guntenspergen
This project employs a series of controlled mesocosm and field experiments, landscape scale studies, a network of coastal wetland monitoring sites, and a suite of predictive models to understand and forecast the vulnerability of coastal wetland systems to global change and identify ways that managers might implement adaptation practices to respond to global change effects. This project is developing an understanding of linkages and feedbacks between physical and biological processes that control stability of coastal marshes, specifically how marshes maintain surface elevations relative to sea level. We are determining how external forcing functions, such as elevated atmospheric CO2, sea level rise, and nutrients, affect ecosystem stability and resilience. We have established and are collecting data from a network of brackish coastal marshes to establish trends in coastal marsh elevation, physical and biological processes contributing to those trends, and response of coastal elevation to manipulative experiments of driving variables. We are using field and greenhouse experiments to parameterize a landscape biogeomorphic model of marsh development to forecast responses of coastal marshes to changes in external forcing functions, identify threshold responses, and identify early warning signs of ecosystem collapse. This research will be incorporated into a decision support process that natural resource managers and policy makers can use to better evaluate and implement adaptation options to SLR.

Documenting Post-Little Ice Age Glacier Behavior and Landscape Evolution in Alaskan National Parks and National ForestsBruce Molnia
Glacierís are the largest reservoir of freshwater on Earth and the single most significant source of meltwater entering the global ocean. In the temperate glacier world, the primary source of meltwater entering the global ocean is the glacierized region of Alaska and adjacent Canada. The majority of temperate glaciers that are contributing to rising sea levels are located in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, Wrangell-St Elias National Park, Denali National Park, Kenai Fjords National Park, Katmai National Park, Lake Clark National Park & Preserve, Gates Of The Arctic National Park & Preserve, Aniakchak National Monument & Preserve, Katmai National Park & Preserve, Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, Tongass National Forest, and Chugach National Forest. A large volume of water remains in Alaskan glaciers. Therefore, the response of existing glaciers to changing climate is a significant factor in future meltwater production. A future sea level rise of even a few centimeters can have a devastating impact on Earthís low elevation coastal areas. Consequently, determining Alaskaís potential role in future sea level change is of critical importance.

FISCHS — Catherine A. Langtimm
The objective of this project is to integrate biological and hydrological models to develop management tools to deal with the projected ecological consequences of rising sea level in coastal south Florida. To develop a realistic suite of predictive tools, we are (1) Mapping the position of the mangrove-marsh ecotone at selected locations for six time periods, determining rates of change and relating those rates to rates of sea-level rise; (2) Developing new mechanistic models of coastal vegetation change and determine thresholds and tipping points for change; (3) Incorporating episodic disturbance from hurricanes to identify its impact on hydrology and vegetation; (4) Enhancing a coupled surface-water/ground-water hydrologic model to reliably hind-cast multi-decadal observed sea level rise, hurricane effects, and vegetation change; (5) Developing future-casting capability under projected climate change, SLR, and restoration scenarios. The insight on hydrologic, ecological, and topographic changes obtained from the Hindcast experimentation is used to extrapolate changes in the future-cast simulations; and (6) Using the hydrologic models to simulate variables for spatially-explicit population and habitat suitability index models for application to management problems.

Glacier Studies — Shad O'Neel
The Glacier Studies project examines the role of glaciers in the environment. Even the basic behavior of these "rivers of ice" was poorly understood until well into the 20th Century. Research has better delineated the relationship between glaciers and climate change, including multiple socio-economic implications like sea level rise, water availability, and hydrologic hazards. However, non-standard behavior characterized during periods of dynamic instability, continues to challenge the glaciological community, both quantitatively and conceptually. A large fraction of uncertainty surrounding glacier change is linked to dynamic instabilities, demonstrating the importance of resolving not only the relationship between direct atmospheric forcing (balance of snowfall and ice melt) of glacier response, but the role of internal dynamics (fast flow, iceberg calving) in an evolving climate system as well. USGS glaciologists are focused on improving understanding of how glaciers "work" and how US glaciers are responding to climate change. We strive to provide enhanced communication with the general public surrounding connections between glacier-climate response and important socio-economic implications including global sea level change, mountain ecosystems and hydrologic systems. The project encompasses research on the US glacier inventory, mass balance, glacier-climate interaction, ice dynamics and calving from tidewater glaciers, and water availability.

Gulf of Mexico Climate VariabilityLisa E. Osterman This project is establishing detailed records of paleoceaonographic, climatic, and environmental change in the Gulf of Mexico and its coastal areas. The primary time interval studied is the Holocene (last 10,000 years) with a focus on the last few thousand years. Climate and environmental proxies from sediment cores are used to document cycles of natural climate variability and environmental change. Specific objectives include developing and refining proxy indicators of past conditions, quantifying the rate and magnitude of past changes, linking marine records with environmental changes on adjacent lands, and providing well-dated, and replicated, time-series of climate and environmental data that can be used to identify and test possible forcing of natural climate variability. Resolution of records ranges from sub annual (corals) to multidecadal (sediment cores).

Lake/Catchment Systems (LACS)Joe Rosenbaum
The USGS Bear Lake Project started in 1998 with the goal of creating records of past climate change for the Bear Lake region, including changes in precipitation (rain and snow) patterns during the last 10,000 years. As part of the project, we're determining how the size of Bear Lake has varied in the past, to assess the possibility of future flooding and drought. Our study includes the upper Bear River watershed. The Bear River is the largest river in the Great Basin and the source of the majority of water flowing into the Great Salt Lake. In this region, wet periods may produce flooding along the course of the Bear River and around Great Salt Lake, while dry periods, or droughts, may affect water availability for agricultural, industrial and residential use.

Land and Climate Change and Prairie Pothole Ecosystems — Robert Gleason
The purpose of this project is to investigate the effects of climate and land cover change on wetland and grassland ecosystems of the Prairie Pothole Region. At the core of this project is an effort to develop an adaptive modeling framework that can be used to observe, monitor, understand, and predict the effects of climate and land-cover change on natural resources and ecosystem processes at multiple spatial and temporal scales. Separating changes attributable to natural climate variability and anthropogenic influences is a major component of this effort. Development of a process based understanding of wetland ecosystems provided by long-term climate, hydrologic, chemical, and biotic data obtained from the Cottonwood Lake Study Area in south-central North Dakota is a critical component of this effort. This project also evaluates other climate and land-cover change effects within the Prairie Pothole Region including 1) risks associated with energy development within the Williston Basin of North Dakota, 2) alteration to wetland hydrology and water quality of National Wildlife Refuges wetlands induced by climate and land-use change, 3) impacts of agricultural tile drainage on wetland hydrology and aquatic resources, and 4) an examination of greenhouse gas fluxes, associated abiotic factors, and carbon cycling of wetlands and catchments.

Last Interglacial Timing & Environment (LITE)Dan Muhs
The last interglacial period has been cited as a possible analog for a future climate under an increased-CO2 greenhouse warming. Previous studies have shown that during the last interglacial CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere were relatively high temperatures may have been higher than the present, and sea level may have been ~6 m higher. The ultimate goals of the LITE project are to (1) develop an accurate estimate of the duration of the last interglacial period, with improved understanding of its primary cause or causes, and (2) using the geologic record, reconstruct the climate of the last interglacial period in the U.S. Both of these goals are intended to provide a basis for improvement of atmospheric general circulation models (AGCMs) that are critical for modeling of future climate.

Rio Puerco Basin Studies — Milan Pavich
The arroyo cycle and climate change are of scientific and practical interest. The Rio Puerco Basin, New Mexico, is an area of historic arroyo incision, long-term geomorphic investigation, and ongoing land management issues. This website comprises earth science and historical perspectives of the Rio Puerco Basin, and data and models that can be used to help predict responses to future changes of climate and landuse.

Science Applications and Decision Support
The purpose of SADS is to develop regional-scale mechanisms that facilitates federal agency collaboration on providing decision support tools for understanding climate variability and change throughout the nation. Our prototype efforts in the Northern Rockies tie in closely with the Department of the Interiorís Landscape Conservation Cooperative, and with the USDI-National Park Serviceís scenario planning efforts, along with an entire suite of public and private partners. The goal is to develop a true collaboration where managers and researchers work together to provide extension services that result in more effective management decisions, focusing on questions surrounding climate issues that are most relevant to a multitude of natural resource specialists. Current USGS climate change related research will help build these tools, while new and innovative research will keep momentum toward progress in providing dynamic, scientifically sound decision support tools to natural resource managers in the area of climate change and ecosystem science.

Sea Level Rise and Conversion of Wetland Forests to Marsh — Ken Krauss
We are documenting shifts in coastal forest condition and hydrological attributes of healthy and degraded forests as they convert to marsh in the Southeastern United States. Our working hypothesis is that carbon sequestration and nutrient biogeochemical processes and rates are expected to vary in different coastal environments in predictable ways. Wetland ecological processes, therefore, are expected to change considerably during the radical shift in balance (loss/gain, uptake/release) at the onset and duration of forest dieback, such that restoration of these ecosystems would be more complex than simply planting trees or diverting water. We are currently leading a series of integrated process-based studies in order to tie directly into structural equation model (and later landscape simulation model) development in prediction of how coastal forest loss may translate into important shifts in ecosystem services associated with carbon, nutrients, and water cycling with sea-level rise and salinity incursion. Our studies are currently centered on select coastal swamp forest transitions in Louisiana, South Carolina, Georgia, and Maryland.

Western Mountain InitiativeJill Baron
The Western Mountain Initiative (WMI) explores the effects of climate and global change on ecological disturbance, responses of forest vegetation, mountain hydrology, and the coupled hydro-ecological responses that determine vulnerability of Western mountain ecosystems to change. Extensive data sets, empirical studies, surveys, and monitoring programs are linked via models to hindcast and forecast the effects of changing conditions on forest dynamics, distribution, and productivity; fire occurrence and insect outbreaks; recovery of vegetation after disturbance; hydrologic changes and glacier dynamics; and the consequences of an altered water cycle for terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems and biogoechemistry. WMI addresses the extent to which climate drivers are mediated by regional- or watershed-scale controls on ecosystem processes, thus quantifying vulnerability in mountain ecosystems. Region-specific results and emergent West-wide patterns are shared with resource managers through workshops and toolkits on climate-change science and adaptation management. Thus, WMI seeks to understand climate-ecosystem interactions, forecast ecological change, and provide adaptation information for managers.

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