NAU ecologist Yiqi Luo part of team awarded $6.4 million NSF grant to study how warming climate affects drylands

Yiqi Luo

Northern Arizona University ecologist Yiqi Luo and collaborators in a multi-site research team have been awarded a 6-year, $6.4 million grant from the National Science Foundation to study dryland ecosystems at the Sevilleta Long Term Ecological Research site in New Mexico. Luo and his team will be studying how the changing climate transforms drylands using observational, experimental and modeling techniques. They hope to predict how whole ecosystems will respond to the hotter, drier conditions being recorded in drylands across the planet.

“In the future, it looks like some parts of the world, like drylands, will become even drier and hotter than they are now,” Luo said. “Our question is, how will living organisms in this area—plants, animals, small creatures, human beings—survive, and what transformations will happen?”

These are the questions Luo’s experimental and modeling techniques will work to answer. Alongside principal investigatorss Jennifer Rudgers, Marcy Litvak and Seth Newsome of the University of New Mexico and Tom Miller of Rice University, Luo and his team will look at how arid ecosystems respond to rising temperatures and increasingly variable rainfall. The 230,000-acre Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge in central New Mexico and its environs will serve as their long-term laboratory.

At NAU, Luo’s lab is developing software that will fetch real-time data from a network of sensors on the Sevilleta site, analyze the data and send back predictions to observational researchers in New Mexico. Like other “smart technology,” the experiments and observation will adapt and improve as they collect more data.

“We are unique in that we understand both the experimental and observational data,” Luo said of his group’s role in the Sevilleta project. “And we have the techniques to integrate them.”

Arid areas, which comprise more than 40 percent of land on earth, are expanding in many places. Yearly differences in temperature and patterns of rain and snow greatly affect the ecology and evolution of plants and animals in these drylands. The Sevilleta team is working to develop predictions about what happens when, for example, rainfall is extremely low in one year but high in the next year.

“Long-term research is critical to ecology,” said Stephanie Hampton, director of the National Science Foundation’s Division of Environmental Biology, which funds the new LTER site. “Long-term data lead to findings that affect all of us, such as the discovery of the link between rodents and the Sin Nombre hantavirus, which can cause severe respiratory disease. This LTER program allows researchers to discover ecological phenomena, assess the pace and impacts of environmental change and forecast a range of future ecosystem scenarios.”

Luo, part of the Center for Ecosystem Science and Society, also mentors more than 10 researchers at NAU. One way these researchers stay connected with their peers is through Drought-Net, an NSF-backed network project. As part of Drought-Net, the Distributed Graduate Seminars allow Luo’s graduate students to regularly share and discuss ideas with scientists from the University of New Mexico, the University of Indiana, University of Wyoming, Colorado State University, Arizona State University, Purdue University, NAU and University of Buenos Aires in Argentina.

For more information, visit Sevilleta Long Term Ecological Research or the NSF’s LTER Network.

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Kate Petersen, Center for Ecosystem Science and Society
(928) 523-2982 |

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