$2.5 million grant funds garden array to study climate change effects

Research team

The National Science Foundation has awarded Northern Arizona University’s College of Engineering, Forestry and Natural Sciences a four-year, $2.5 million grant to create the Southwest Experimental Garden Array.

The garden array will be a system of 10 experimental gardens across northern Arizona that include habitat types from desert to alpine forests. The gardens will be used to examine how climate change will affect the ecology and evolution of individual plant species, plant communities and ecosystems.

“This facility holds the potential to create breakthroughs in our understanding of the genetic consequences of climate change on plants,” said Regents professor Tom Whitham, executive director of NAU’s Merriam-Powell Center for Environmental Research and the project’s principal investigator. “It will serve as model for the future and the start of an international effort for similar experimental arrays.”

Raising the same plant genotypes—plants with the same genetic makeup—in an array of sites along an elevational gradient of temperature and moisture, scientists can examine how different genotypes perform under different climatic conditions.

The ability to identify genotypes most likely to survive and reproduce in a rapidly changing climate provides the basis for improving the success of efforts to restore ecosystems damaged by extreme disturbances such as severe droughts and fire.

“The opportunities created by this facility to enhance research and educational opportunities at Northern Arizona University are incredibly exciting,” said Laura Huenneke, vice president for research at NAU. “Not only will the research community benefit, but our undergraduate and graduate students will gain training in climate science, ecology, genetics and much more.”

The 10 gardens in the array will be established in partnership with the Arboretum at Flagstaff, National Forest Service, National Park Service, Babbitt Ranches, the Nature Conservancy and Walnut Creek Center for Education and Research.

Co-principal investigators on the grant are professor Paul Flikkema, electrical and computer engineering; professor George Koch, biological sciences; assistant research professor Amy Whipple, biological sciences; and Brian Geils, USDA Forest Service.