Long-Term Vegetation Change on the Colorado Plateau

Science Center Objects

Drylands comprise ~35% of Earth’s terrestrial biomes, with over 1 billion people depending on these landscapes for their livelihoods. In the U.S., drylands comprise ~40% of the landmass and 83% of Department of Interior (DOI)-managed lands (excluding Alaska). Due to their vast extent nationally and globally, changes to these landscapes have the potential to affect global climate regulation. A dramatic temperature rise (up to 6°C) and decline in precipitation (up to 20%) is predicted for these regions, despite them already being characterized by high temperatures and low and variable precipitation. As the changes in climate predicted for dryland regions are large, the impact to wildlife and human populations dependent on these resources is likely to be profound and widespread. As a result, drylands have been identified as one of three regions that will be most vulnerable to climate change by both the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the USGS Climate Change Team.


This project addressing significant uncertainties in our understanding of how vegetation and soil nutrient cycles in drylands will respond to future climate and land use change. We are accomplishing this through analysis and synthesis of ecosystem data collected by the USGS since 1996 across historic grazing gradient in Canyonlands National Park. These data include vegetation transects, soil biogeochemistry (e.g., nitrogen and carbon cycling), and geomorphic instigations. New understanding of climate change impacts on ecosystem processes produced by this effort will help inform DOI and other federal, state, tribal and private land management decisions aimed at mitigating effects of climate change. Additionally, by providing information that will help distinguish ecosystem change due to climate alone from those changes attributable to land use, the results of this work will help managers of complex, multi-use landscapes identify successful management actions. Much of this research will be conducted at Canyonlands Research Center, The Nature Conservancy run research center

Part of Canyonlands National Park - aerial view

Aerial view of study area in Canyonlands National Park. (Credit: Jayne Belnap, U.S. Geological Survey. Public domain.)