Oregon Gets $3.2 M in Grants to Study Northwest Climate Change

Climate change in the Northwest is the focus of two federal grants totaling $3.2 million awarded to two University of Oregon (UO) researchers. They will work together on a pair of multi-site projects designed to help enhance biodiversity while protecting people and property from wildfires in the face of a changing climate.

Scott D. Bridgham, an ecologist in the UO's Center for Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, will lead an effort to understand potential threats to prairie ecosystems in Oregon and Washington with a $1.8 million, four-year grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. The project will involve a series of 23-foot climate-controlled circles of prairie vegetation on properties owned by The Nature Conservancy in the Puget Trough near Olympia, Wash., the Rogue River Valley outside Medford, Ore., and the Willamette Valley west of Eugene. The three sites form a natural climate gradient of temperature and precipitation, upon which climate-change treatments will be imposed.

Bart Johnson, professor of landscape architecture, will lead a four-year, $1.4 million project funded by the National Science Foundation targeting Oregon's Willamette Valley, where population is projected to double in 40 years. Urban growth into rural areas is expected to raise the vulnerability to wildfires for more people and properties under climate-driven changes. Researchers will model the effects of a variety of changes in ecosystems, wildfire, land use, and land management in different areas of the Willamette Valley. One goal is to explore whether restoring historic oak savanna and prairie can be used as a successful defense against catastrophic wildfires.

Researchers will "couple" their biophysical model of climate-driven changes in vegetation and fire with a model of how decision makers on individual land parcels respond to climate, land-use regulation and incentives, land markets, perceived fire hazard, land management costs, and aesthetics. The focus will be on two small areas in the valley, one around several rural towns and the surrounding countryside and one adjacent to a larger metropolitan area.

"Climate change is likely to have major impacts on wildfire, biodiversity, and people in the Pacific Northwest," Johnson said. "Predicting the effects of climate change on people and ecosystems, though, is difficult because of the uncertainties – not just about the magnitude of climate change, but about how ecosystems will respond to those changes and, in turn, how people will respond to those changes in ecosystems."

Johnson and Bridgham will collaborate under both grants. The NSF project involves an interdisciplinary team that includes researchers from the UO, Oregon State University, and the U.S. Forest Service. Researchers will gather data and build comprehensive modeling systems that explore possible ranges of climate-change outcomes. They will model all combinations of two very different climate-change scenarios, two very different land-growth scenarios, and two sets of policies that could guide how people can protect themselves and their property from wildfire.

The DOE project involves intensive studies of 12 native plant species that currently exist with range limitations in the Pacific Northwest. Some are found no further south than southern Oregon, others no further north than Washington's Puget Sound. They serve as indicators of climate-change impacts on other native plant species, Bridgham said.

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