Changing climate could alter meadows' ecosystems, researcher says

July 6, 2010
Debinski studied six different types of montane meadows that ranged from dry (xeric) to wet (hydric). These meadows get most of their water from the melting of winter snows. This runoff provides water to the area into July and August. Credit: ISU courtesy photo

Changing climate could affect the diversity of plants and animals, and we can get a glimpse of what this may look like by studying the effects of drought in a relatively pristine ecosystem, according to an Iowa State University researcher.

Diane Debinski has been studying the meadows in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem of the since 1992. She has found that if the area's climate becomes drier as the earth's temperature climbs, it could lead to a change in the types of plants and animals that live there.

To study the potential effects of climate change, Debinski has been conducting large-scale, long-term, observational studies of the plant and insect communities in 55 montane (mountainous) meadows in the ecosystem.

Debinski studied six different types of montane meadows that ranged from dry (xeric) to wet (hydric).

These meadows get most of their water from the melting of winter snows. This runoff provides water to the area into July and August.

"It was our aim to look at the same sites year after year," said Debinski. "We know that the world changes and ecological communities change over time, but not many people look at the same research sites for a decade or more. I wanted a data set to look at changes in the communities over the long term."

Debinski and her colleagues were able to measure the changes in the plant community from 1997 to 2007, which included an extended drought. Her research was recently published in the journal Ecology.

According to Debinski, the shrubs that grow in the drier meadows (such as sagebrush) increased, while decreased in number. Shrubs from drier meadows do not provide as much food for animals as flowering plants that grow in wetter meadows.

This may result from the way the plants get water, Debinski said. Shrubs generally have deeper roots and can obtain water from deeper in the soils. Flowering plants generally get water from nearer the surface. These types of changes could have important implications for wildlife in the montane meadows Debinski studied.

"In these meadows, as water became more scarce, that means less moisture for the plants," she said. "The flowering plants don't grow as well and therefore don't provide as much food to the animals. These types of changes in the plants could affect populations of elk, bison, as well as many other smaller animals, including insects."

Since there were fewer flowering plants in the drier years, pollinators such as butterflies were also becoming scarce in several of the plots Debinski and her colleagues studied. Two species of butterflies that live in the wetter meadows actually disappeared from her sampling sites for a year, but were observed again in later years.

Debinski plans to publish the results of her butterfly research soon.

Because there are six types of meadows, from wet to dry, Debinski was also able to examine which meadow type was most vulnerable to change.

The results showed that medium-moisture meadows -- neither wet nor dry -- are in the biggest danger of change.

"If wet meadows get a little drier, they're still wet," she said. "If dry meadows get a little drier, they are still dry. But the meadows with a medium amount of wetness are the ones that may be changing most."

One aspect of the study that Debinski thinks gives the results even more credibility is the location of the experiment, high in the Rocky Mountains.

"It is important to know what sorts of changes are happening in a place where people don't have much of an impact," she said. "The results of other studies done in other places can blame changes on human impact. Not so much here."

More recently Debinski and her colleagues have added an experimental aspect to the research by using snow removal and warming chambers to assess plant and insect responses in these meadows. The experimental approach will allow them to quantify how specific changes in soil moisture and temperature affect the plants and insects.

Explore further: Oasis near Death Valley fed by ancient aquifer under Nevada Test Site

Related Stories

Desert Dust Alters Ecology of Colorado Alpine Meadows

June 29, 2009

( -- Accelerated snowmelt--precipitated by desert dust blowing into the mountains--changes how alpine plants respond to seasonal climate cues that regulate their life cycles, according to results of a new study ...

FDA issues contaminated cheese warning

January 31, 2008

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has issued a consumer warning and recall of possibly contaminated Grassy Meadows Dairy Co. cheeses.

Flower power makes tropics cooler, wetter

June 16, 2010

The world is a cooler, wetter place because of flowering plants, according to new climate simulation results published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. The effect is especially pronounced in the Amazon basin, ...

Recommended for you

Climate change made Harvey rainfall 15 percent more intense

December 14, 2017

A team of scientists from World Weather Attribution, including researchers from Rice University and other institutions in the United States and Europe, have found that human-caused climate change made the record rainfall ...

Hydraulic fracturing negatively impacts infant health

December 13, 2017

From North Dakota to Ohio to Pennsylvania, hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, has transformed small towns into energy powerhouses. While some see the new energy boom as benefiting the local economy and decreasing ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

2 / 5 (4) Jul 06, 2010
There are two kinds of researchers: those that go after tough problems (such as engineering new types of drought tolerant grass), and those who "discover" new global warming connections.
1.8 / 5 (5) Jul 06, 2010
Earth's climate has always changed because Earth's heat source is a variable star ["Earth's heat source - the Sun," Energy & Environment 20 (2009) 131-144].

Earth's changing climate has and will continue to affect the diversity of plants and animals here.

With kind regards.,
Oliver K. Manuel
4 / 5 (4) Jul 06, 2010
First, you cant do plant engineering in wild area.

Second, Energy & Environment is not a peer review paper.
1 / 5 (6) Jul 06, 2010
Energy & Environment is not a peer review paper.

Do you prefer "The Sun is a plasma diffuser that sorts atoms by mass", Physics of Atomic Nuclei 69 (2006) 1847-1856;

Or "Superfluidity in the solar interior: Implications for solar eruptions and climate", Journal of Fusion Energy 21 (2002) 193-198;

Or "Composition of the solar interior: Information from isotope ratios",
ESA SP-517 (Editor: Huguette Lacoste, 2003) 345-348; ?

With kind regards,
Oliver K. Manuel
1 / 5 (4) Jul 06, 2010
Please look up the meaning of the word pristine.

You are either a virgin or you are not a virgin.

You cannot be a little bit pregnant.

And you cannot be 'relatively pristine'!

And, yes, if an area stops receiving rain it turns into a place we call a desert, which means nothing grows there, a severe case of 'change in the types of plants and animals that live there'.

Where does one apply to do stupid work like this?
1 / 5 (1) Jul 06, 2010
Another 'duh' headline.
4.5 / 5 (2) Jul 07, 2010
Mr Manuel, your theory is right only if we reject everything we now about the solar physics and the astrophysics in general. If some persons allows you to publish your rubish, its is their problem. By exemple, it is completely inconsistant with the observed neutrino spectrum, heliosysmology and plain HR diagram!!

Nevertheless, There are many evidence that your allowed in some conference only because it is a policy to accept anything. This is psecilay the case of APS, which accept everything to avoid violent reation.
1 / 5 (3) Jul 07, 2010
The sad fact is just this: NAS has for decades directed public tax funds to -

A. Research agencies that would promote misinformation on the Sun's role in controlling Earth's climate [1],

B. NASA to manipulate or hide experimental data from:

-a.) The 1969 Apollo Mission showing that Iron (Fe) is the Sun's most abundant element [2],

-b.) The 1995 Galileo Mission to Jupiter confirming mass fractionation in the Sun [3], and

C. The US DOE to ignore precise nuclear rest mass data showing that neutron repulsion is the nuclear energy source that quantitatively explains the Sun's outflow of energy, neutrinos, and solar-wind Hydrogen in the proportions observed [1,2].

1. "Earth's heat source - the Sun", Energy & Environment 20 (2009) 133-141.
2. "The Sun is a plasma diffuser that sorts atoms by mass", Physics of Atomic Nuclei 69 (2006) 1847-1856.
3. "Isotopic ratios in Jupiter confirm intra-solar diffusion", Meteoritics & Planetary Science 33 (1998) A97, paper 5011. - OKM
2.3 / 5 (3) Jul 07, 2010
First problem with this article: The assumption that warmer climate leads to drought. We know for certain that La Nina, a cooling effect, causes drought, while El Nino, a warming effect, causes heavier rainfall. We also know for certain that warmer times in Earth's geological history have been wetter times, while cooler climate has been drier. IF we are warming up, then we will get wetter, not drier.

Second problem with this article: "One aspect of the study that Debinski thinks gives the results even more credibility is the location of the experiment, high in the Rocky Mountains"

Sure, take a location that is atypical and use that location for a study, then write an article that makes it sound like these conditions would apply elsewhere. Since this location depends on melting snow for its water supply, it is quite unique. Only a small portion of the world shares this condition. I still have to point out that the assumption of drought makes the whole thing moot anyway. Fearmonger
1 / 5 (1) Jul 07, 2010
Correction to my previous: El Nino and La Nina don't actually produce consistent changes. It seems that they both cause both drought and floods, depending on where you look. However, geological records still indicate that warmer is wetter.
5 / 5 (2) Jul 07, 2010
Mr Manuel, the key point in your statement is your model described qualitatively the energy source of the sun. But, quantitavely it makes no sens at all. The internal structure of the Sun would be completely different, since the nuclear réaction rates in the core would be much larger.

This means that ALL stellar evolution models would be wrong, even if they describe quantitavely, the evolution of stars over three order of magnitude in mass.
not rated yet Jul 11, 2010
This article reports on thoughtful and thorough field research that yields some practical insights on which ecosystems are at risk during climate changes.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.