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A new USGS-led project will use information about ecological diversity and climate history to predict ecosystem stability, resistance, and recovery to “climate shocks” such as heat waves and droughts. The team will apply these predictions worldwide to produce a truly global-scale assessment of ecosystem vulnerability to future climate projections.

Image: Forest Die-Off in Southwest: 2002 and 2004
These photos show the kind of massive forest die-off that is projected to occur more frequently in the Southwest. Piñon pines, normally evergreen, have reddish-brown foliage in October 2002 (left). By May 2004 (right), the dead piñon pines have lost all their needles, exposing gray trunks and branches. The photos were taken from the same vantage point near Los Alamos, N.M. Forest drought stress is strongly correlated with tree mortality from poor growth, bark beetle outbreaks, and high-severity fire.

Climate change and anthropogenic disturbances are driving unprecedented declines in global biodiversity and ecosystem function. On top of this, the frequency and severity of “climate shocks” like heat waves and droughts are causing mass mortality events and shifting ecosystems from high stable states into more unbalanced conditions. Traditionally, experts have assumed higher ecological diversity leads to greater ecosystem stability, but climate change is causing scientists to re-think this theory. This synthesis will include long-term datasets across an extensive gradient of species richness—from extremely low diversity seagrass beds to high diversity coral reefs and forests—and will integrate information across both marine and terrestrial ecosystems with different characteristics, climate histories, and potential for future climate disturbance to identify universal relationships between diversity, climate, and ecosystem stability.

This project was granted funding by the USGS John Wesley Powell Center for Analysis and Synthesis, which fosters innovative thinking in Earth system science through collaborative synthesis activities. This mission is driven by the recognition that synthesis is critical to solving complex problems facing Society. The Powell Center funds projects that address development and testing of important Earth system science ideas and theories using existing data, cutting-edge analysis of Earth system information, and use of sound science in policy and management decisions.

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