What Could Climate Change Mean for the West?

By Stephanie Paige Ogburn, E&E reporter
3/18/2013 10:05:54 AM

One of the bigger uncertainties in predicting climate change impacts in the arid, mountainous West lies in the realm of how precipitation will change. This is partly because the region's varied topography makes modeling such changes difficult.

Nickolay Stanev

A new network of sensors could help with that. The Nevada Climate-Ecohydrology Assessment Network, a set of monitoring stations recently established in Nevada's Great Basin, monitors climate variables, including precipitation, across the valleys and mountains of this region.

The ability to have long-term, continuous measurements from specific locations is key to understanding how climate change is affecting the environment.

Scott Mensing, a biogeographer and paleoecologist at the University of Nevada, Reno, was one of the organizers of the network and co-author of an article on it released last week in Eos, Transactions American Geophysical Union.

Because most of the inhabited parts of Nevada and the mountain West are in the valleys, there isn't good meteorological data from the mountains, even though most of the water these communities rely on comes from them, Mensing said.

"Nevada has 200 separate mountain ranges, and many of these are very tall, and that's where the water comes from in the state," he said.

The sites, which were set up as a collaboration between UN Reno; the University of Nevada, Las Vegas; and the Desert Research Institute, are located across two transects. One is in the more northern Great Basin near Great Basin National Park, and the other transect is in the south, closer to Las Vegas.

What will happen to water where it is priceless?

The transects go from low to high elevations and are set in areas with different precipitation patterns, which will help researchers get a fuller picture of how the climate is changing across the area.

The network was set up over the course of five years through a grant from the National Science Foundation. That funding ends this year, Mensing said, so he's hoping that in addition to funding from the University of Nevada, those who benefit from the data will chip in to support the long-term project.

Dale Devitt, a soil and water scientist from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who helped set up the project, said the stations are "very sophisticated."

"They are 10 meters in height (almost 33 feet), measure atmospheric parameters, soil-based parameters and plant-based variables."

Devitt has already been using the data the network collects for research about how some shrubs are linked to groundwater and others to precipitation. One of his graduate students, he said, was also getting interesting results on how sagebrush, an important species in mixed shrubland ecosystems in the West, are decreasing their growth with warmer temperatures.

A key feature of the system is that the data are available for anyone to use for free, said Scotty Strachan, another scientist at UN Reno who worked on setting up the network.

In fact, one of the reasons the researchers published an article on the project is to raise awareness so now that it is fully operational, more scientists and even citizens will begin to take advantage of the data.

"We have local ranching interests who I'm sure will eventually use this," Strachan said. He also thinks researchers wanting to refine the precipitation portion of their climate models will be able to use the data taken from both high- and low-altitude sites in that task.

"It's just one more contribution to how we are trying to predict what is going to happen in the arid West in the next 50 years as far as water supply goes."

The city of Las Vegas, which currently relies on the Colorado River for its water supply, has plans to pump groundwater from a number of basins in the eastern part of Nevada. The ecological impacts of this remain a contentious issue, but the sensors might help provide better data on those effects, Strachan added.

Click here for the open access data portal.

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