Jornada Basin Long Term Ecological Research Program

by Jennifer Perez

The Jornada Experimental Range’s Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) program, supported by the National Science Foundation since 1981, investigates the complex ecosystem dynamics found in northern Chihuahuan Desert landscapes. The Jornada represents one of the LTER network’s 25 ecologically diverse locations, which range from tropical coral reef communities to dense urban spaces. With a commitment to accessible ecology, coupled with contributions to long-term data collections, LTER researchers translate their understanding of all landscapes—whether urban, rural, or marine—into effective strategies for natural resource management across the Nation.

Built upon a rich, extensive research history, the LTER program at The Jornada allows for scientists from a consortium of universities and the national Agricultural Research Service to access historical data dating back to the 1800s. These records, combined with the nearly 257,000 acres comprising the Jornada Basin LTER, provide scientists with a rare opportunity to investigate ecological issues in a living laboratory. Scientists today examine­­­­ vegetation, animal life, climate, soils, and land use, while accessing information on what the ecological makeup of this land was a century ago.

 


Looking southwest at Jornada headquarters, one-quarter mile northeast of headquarters.
Considerable sand erosion and deposition around yucca elata plants (June 1935).

Expanding Deserts, Historic Problems

The landscapes surrounding The Jornada are representative of many other arid and semiarid ecosystems across the world, where desertification—or dramatic changes in vegetation and ecosystem processes—has drastically altered the terrain in some locations. Desertification causes once-flourishing grasslands to transform into arid shrublands with degraded soils, leading to a loss of resources, including biodiversity. Scientists at the Jornada Basin LTER work to identify the key processes that cause soil resources to redistribute across spatial scales. Significant progress has been made in understanding the causes and consequences of desertification, research that can be directly applied to the management and restoration of arid rangeland systems in the U.S., throughout North America, and around the world. 

With over 1.25 billion people living in dryland areas around the world, desertification is a critical, global issue. The effects of this transformation can interfere with the most basic needs of the world’s populations—reducing the availability of water supplies, food resources, good air quality, and soil fertility. Understanding the restoration potential of degraded ecosystems is the first step toward a solution.

Reasons for desertification are interconnected and complex. Topography, soil, humans, and climate all interact to determine the vegetation dynamics in our Chihuahuan Desert region. However, LTER scientists discovered many other factors contributing to the desertification found here, including livestock grazing, drought, climate change, fire suppression, and changes in animal populations.

Solutions for controlling desertification are even more complicated than its causes. Research at The Jornada LTER continues to focus on the complex interactive circle of changes in plants, animals, and soils. Scientists work to determine how these factors, whether solely or in concert, have led to the changes in the vegetation systems. The Jornada LTER focuses on five habitats typical of the northern Chihuahuan Desert area:

  • Black grama grassland,
  • Creosotebush scrub,
  • Mesquite duneland,
  • Tarbush shrublands,
  • and playas dominated by a variety of grasses.

The desertification process can be seen in action at specific locations in Southern New Mexico, where shrubland communities dominated by creosotebush, mesquite, and tarbush have replaced large areas that were once black grama grasslands. Though the Jornada’s research record proves dramatic changes in vegetation have been observed over the last 100 years, LTER scientists today work to understand where desertification has and has not occurred, and how to limit or even reverse it where needed.

 

Discovering Solutions

Jornada Basin LTER scientists have made key discoveries that give significant insight into ecological processes and solutions. The following highlights are some of the most important research recently contributed by The Jornada to the national LTER network:

  • Tipping Points—Jornada LTER scientists discovered the mechanisms by which ecosystems cross “tipping points”, or thresholds where dramatic and rapid changes can occur. Understanding these thresholds is key to deciphering how to manage and protect grasslands and other ecosystems.
  • Ecosystem Dynamics—LTER scientists here determined that variability in ecosystem responses is actually more characteristic of arid lands than “average” conditions would be. This concept reframed research approaches by providing insights into old problems faced by this region over the past century.
  • Ability to Restore—Jornada studies over the past century reveal that while difficult, it is possible to reverse already arid shrublands and degraded soils back into diverse, flourishing grasslands. Research continues on how to successfully implement large-scale restorations of arid lands.
  • Accessible Ecology—The LTER at The Jornada makes its research and scientific knowledge accessible to a broad audience, developing tools and software for public consumption. These educational tools help forward the mission of the LTER and keep the community involved in this important research, whether desertification is happening in our own backyards or across the globe.
    EcoTrends Project - https://ecotrends.info

The Jornada Basin LTER extends the idea of accessible ecology into the community by giving school-aged kids the chance to take learning outside of the classroom and into their natural surroundings. The Jornada Schoolyard program partners with the Asombro Institute for Science Education, the Jornada Experimental Range, and the Jornada Basin LTER to provide inquiry-based activities to teach students about local desert ecosystems. The benefit extends beyond revealing science as relevant and fun—school have documented an increase in science test scores for students who participated in the program.

 

Collaborative Investigations

The Jornada Basin LTER partners with nonprofits, federal agencies, educational institutions, and other research organizations to create a productive network of connections. Listed below are our affiliated partners and links to more information: