Ecology :: K-State to collaborate on research to forecast ecological consequences of environmental changes

How do climate change and other global environmental changes affect the average Kansan? Researchers at Kansas State University are working to find out.

K-State, along with the University of Kansas, recently received grants totaling $9.25 million from the National Science Foundation — $6.75 million — and the Kansas Technology Enterprise Corporation — $2.5 million — to study ecological change in the Kansas River Basin and establish a virtual ecological forecasting center in Kansas.

“We have a world-class group of ecological researchers here,” said Walter Dodds, professor of biology, who leads the research for K-State. “We’re also very open to collaboration at K-State. This project plays to our strengths.”

Dodds said related research at K-State includes that at the Konza Prairie Biological Station, an 8,616-acre native prairie preserve owned by The Nature Conservancy and K-State and operated as a field research station by K-State’s Division of Biology; the Consortium for Global Research on Water-based Economies; and the Geographic Information Systems and Spatial Analysis Laboratory.

Dodds said forecasting biological and ecological consequences of accelerating global changes is one of the grand challenges of the 21st century. The National Science Foundation is developing a National Ecological Observatory Network, with ecological observatories around the country to measure and observe the environment in hopes of answering regional- to continental-scale scientific questions. The work in Kansas is hoped to become part of this network.

“The Kansas River Basin is of economic and ecological interest to Kansas,” Dodds said. “But it can also answer questions of interest to the nation and the world.” Kansas’ Central Plains are ecologically complex and provide a model ecosystem to assess and forecast impacts of global change, he said.

The grants will bring equipment, people and research to the university, Dodds said. The ecological forecasting project is divided into subgroups involving researchers from areas including hydrology, ecology, geography, sociology, computer information technology and agronomy. Subgroups include biodiversity, biogeochemistry or nutrient flux, climate and hydrology, human dimensions, and information/data management. Ecological forecasting must consider changes in land-use patterns; climate; biota, or all animals and plants; and hydrological and biogeochemical cycles, Dodds said. Research will include collecting and analyzing existing biological, environmental and social data, and developing predictive models for testing.

Dodds said a better understanding and ability to forecast these changes and their consequences is fundamental to sustaining the ecosystem and all it provides to us, including supplying clean water, recycling essential nutrients, sequestering carbon, preserving biodiversity and guarding against invasive species and emerging diseases.

Questions researchers will look at include what happens to land use and water use if more corn is used to make ethanol” What happens to fish populations where reservoirs are created and stream flows changed”

“It allows us to understand how we interact with the environment that supports us,” Dodds said.

The three-year grants were awarded to the Kansas National Science Foundation Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research to link researchers in Kansas. Dodds’ counterpart at KU is Leonard Krishtalka, director of the KU Natural History Museum and Biodiversity Research Center.

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