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Fall 2011

Frog research at Texas Tech

by John Davis

Researchers Arsuffi, Hayhoe and Zak speak about the importance of the newly formed South-Central Climate Science Center and the significant leadership role of Texas Tech University within the consortium.


News Releases

U.S. Department of the Interior

University of Oklahoma

Texas Tech Joins Department of the Interior's South-Central Climate Science Center to Study Climate Change Impacts on Natural Resources

Spring comes one to two weeks earlier in the year.

According to the National Arbor Day Foundation, conditions in many locations in the continental U.S. have already shifted by one full USDA plant hardiness zone in the last 30 years.

Birds, insects and diseases common in tropical areas are moving northward. Migration patterns continue to shift.

The climate is changing, and our natural environment is the first to respond.

The weather in 2011 exhibited more extremes, and some might say Mother Nature got a little nastier. But these changes have been developing for some time, say researchers. Only now, subtle changes have become more noticeable, and some of the reasons for increased heat and changing rainfall patterns can be traced back to human-induced climate change.

Texas Tech University is part of the consortium that will make up the newly formed South-Central Climate Science Center to study the impacts of climate change on our natural resources and environment. The entity, created by the U.S. Department of the Interior, will cover Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico.

The consortium is led by the University of Oklahoma and is made up of Texas Tech, Louisiana State University, the Chickasaw Nation, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State University and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (GFDL) at Princeton University. It also includes other organizations from across the region.

The South-Central Climate Science Center is one of eight being established throughout the country. Texas Tech is expected to play a significant leadership role within the consortium and with the U.S. Department of the Interior.

“The awarding of the South-Central Climate Science Center was a highly competitive process,” said Texas Tech President Guy Bailey. “We are delighted to partner with these outstanding institutions and tribal organizations. I believe Texas Tech brings solid climate science, conservation and atmospheric science research to the table as the consortium looks at solutions to current challenges facing our region. We already have close collaborations with the U.S. Department of the Interior, and we look forward to growing these significantly.”

Big Bend National Park Research –
John Zak, Biological Sciences

John Zak research Big Bend

Natasja van Gestel studying the effects of daily variation in soil temperatures on plant and soil microbial responses in a creosotebush bajada at Rice Tanks.

John Zak research Big Bend

Graduate student examines the photosynthetic capabilities of grasses and shrubs to changes in precipitation in a sotol grassland.

John Zak research Big Bend

Graduate students from John Zak's lab at the sotol grassland site.
Images courtesy John Zak

The Center’s Charge

The scientific verdict is in – whether some politicians are ready to face it or not – that humans have an impact on climate change, and the natural environment is already responding in part to our 150-year-old habit of burning fossil fuels for energy.

Because of increased carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels, the climate has been, is currently and will be changing. This will affect weather patterns around the globe. Longer dry spells, wetter wet seasons and more extreme heat all top the playlist for future forecasts.

These changes in weather patterns already have created changes in habitat for plants and animals, said John Zak, a biologist and associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences who serves as the principal investigator on the project.

“Becoming part of the center makes Texas Tech part of a national network that is addressing real science needs that can be used to deal with water policy issues, biological conservation and how economic decisions are influenced by precipitation and climate,” he said.

For the past 20 years, Zak and others have researched climate-caused changes at Big Bend National Park.

On top of issues with overgrazing in the ’20s and ’30s, the drying of the climate that started in the ’60s and ’70s has caused what were once grasslands to give way to shrub lands or bare landscapes. Changes in plants led to changes in animals that live in the park, he said, and many species that used to live there have disappeared, opening opportunities for exotic species to gain a foothold.

But as climates continue to change and alter what lives in these regions, Zak said scientists at the center will assist the Department of the Interior with understanding the changes as well as apply for research dollars to look at ways to adapt to change and mitigate potential impact of change on ecological systems.

“The University of Oklahoma has very in-depth capabilities looking at climate dynamics on the macro-level,” Zak said. “We’re very good at looking at climate change from the regional level, and we’re very good at understanding responses of ecological systems to climate change. Our experience at understanding ecological responses on land and in water is a strength that Texas Tech brings to this consortium. We’ve got a solid background of studying regional climates as well as working in Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico to deal with those kinds of issues.”

Explaining the Elephant

Katharine Hayhoe, associate professor and one of the directors of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech, has watched the Earth’s changing climate for years.

She contributes to and reviews the Nobel Prize-winning United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s reports and serves as lead author for White House-backed national research projects to evaluate climate change impacts on the United States.

She and other researchers have found the U.S. is experiencing increasing trends in both average conditions and climate extremes, such as rainfall and heat, that are linked to human-induced climate change.

“In the United States, high temperature records are now being broken twice as often as cold temperature records,” she said. “Winter storms that track across the northern U.S. are shifting pole-ward. Sea levels are rising. More rain is associated with storms and hurricanes because the atmosphere holds more water vapor as it warms.

“Our climate is no longer predictable based on what we’ve seen in the past. What we saw yesterday no longer applies to what we may see today.”

When it comes to climate change, the consortium approach to understanding it is the most effective, Hayhoe said. So many variables in play at one time make it hard for just one researcher or institution to fully grasp the big picture.

“If you attack a problem this size from only one perspective, it’s like the analogy of the blind men and elephant,” Hayhoe said. “One grabs the trunk and explains that the elephant is long and round while another grabs the ear and describes it as flat and thin. In this field you could come away with a wrong impression because you’re only coming from one perspective. We need a lot of different people studying the elephant of climate change to come to a greater understanding and better solutions.”

not blue not red but green

Click on graphic image above to find out more about climate change. © atmosresearch.com

Texas Hill Country Research –
Tom Arsuffi, LRFS director

Tom Arsuffi

Arsuffi currently is working to restore numbers of Guadalupe Bass which are steadily disappearing in the South Llano.

Tom Arsuffi

Researchers restocked affected areas with 17,000 purebred fry through the Guadalupe Bass Restoration Initiative.
Images courtesy Tom Arsuffi

Watch the Video of Arsuffi's Research >>

Tom Arsuffi, an ecologist and director of Texas Tech University Llano River Field Station (LRFS) in Junction, is one of the researchers involved in the center. He said average climate varies considerably in Texas, let alone the tri-state region. Part of the Junction campus’s role is to cover a vast and unique region of Texas – the 23-county Hill Country.

“This is a very important region in terms of climate,” Arsuffi said. “The Hill Country is world-renowned as one of the hot spots of biodiversity. We’ve got lots of unique plants, animals, fish and insects. And conservation of that biodiversity is really critical. We’re also a hot spot for springs. The headwaters of many major rivers in Texas all get original base flows from springs. Springs are a great gauge or barometer on the health of groundwater systems. The climate change we will see in terms of its impacts are going to be on rainfall, flood and drought events. So it’s going to have a really significant impact on the distribution and impact of water on a very large region. Understanding what’s going on in the Hill Country and its impact on biodiversity and water systems in the region is really critical to the rest of the state.”

Hayhoe said researchers will focus specifically on the Department of the Interior’s natural lands and resources to find ways to increase ecological resilience in the now uncertain future as well as improving our understanding of climate changes and its impacts on the natural resources and environment of the South-Central region.

“Within the new consortium, we are gathering the expertise we need to answer these questions,” she said. “This center will allow us to tackle questions that can’t be answered by one or two people on their own. We’ll have experts who understand the physiology of fish working side-by-side with people who understand the broad impact of humans on the planet as a whole. This range of disciplines is essential to understanding such a complex, multidisciplinary problem.”

Feature image by Philip Marshall.

Pictured: (Back from left to right) Mark Wallace, chair of natural resources management; Michael Farmer, agriculture and applied economics; Reynaldo Patiño, biological sciences and Texas Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit; Tom Arsuffi, director, Llano River Field Station; (Front from left to right) Katharine Hayhoe, political science; John Zak, biological sciences and College of Arts and Sciences Dean's Office; Lou Densmore, chair, biological sciences.

Researchers Not Pictured: Ken Rainwater, director, Water Resources Center and civil engineering; David Tissue, biological sciences and Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment, University of Western Sydney.

John Davis is a Senior Writer in the Office of Communications & Marketing at Texas Tech University. Videos produced by Scott Irlbeck, Office of Communications & Marketing.

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