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Discovery October/November 1999

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Detecting Change, Defining Consequences

by Lisa J. Graumlich

A new global focus on mountain research

For those of us who live in the mountains of the West, we usually think of our rugged landscapes as sources of economic prosperity, scenic amenities or sites for recreation. Increasingly, however, mountains are taking on a new importance as sites for scientific research.

Arguably, mountain regions should be studied for their own sake. Mountains occupy about one-fifth of the Earth's surface. They are home to approximately one-tenth of the global population and provide goods and services (e.g., forest products, fresh water) to about half of humanity. Clearly, research aimed at sustaining mountain ecosystems and economies is important to those of us who live and work in such regions.

New research initiatives increasingly recognize mountains as significant, not only at regional scales, but also as a component of global change research. Research on global change seeks to understand the ways in which humanity is affecting the Earth's ecosystems through large and unprecedented changes in the Earth's atmosphere (e.g., increasing carbon dioxide, decreasing stratospheric ozone) and the Earth's ecosystems (e.g., changes in land use, loss of biodiversity).

Mountain regions often provide unique and, sometimes, the best opportunities to detect and analyze global change processes. For example, due to strong altitudinal gradients, climate, hydrology, and vegetation change rapidly over short distances. Characteristic boundaries found in mountain regions, such as upper treeline or glacier margins, experience shifts due to environmental change and thus can be used as indicators of changing climate.

Parks and other protected areas in mountain regions afford another type of research opportunity. Protected areas serve as ideal locations for disentangling the impacts of climate change on ecological processes from changes in land use or management. Finally, mountain regions often preserve paleoclimatic data sources such as tree rings, glacial deposits and lake sediments. Records of the past are key to characterizing the natural variability of the climate system and will allow us to determine if human impacts have indeed forced the climate system outside the bounds of natural variability.

The Mountain Research Center at MSU

As the new Director of MSU's Mountain Research Center (MRC), I plan to take advantage of the increased interest in linking global change research and mountain regions. The MRC is actively developing a research program on several themes relating global change to mountain environments, specifically:

  • Climate variability over seasons to centuries and its impacts;
  • Changes in land cover and biodiversity;
  • Integrated assessment of change and its consequences in mountain watersheds; and
  • Carbon cycle dynamics in North Temperate mountain environments
I am heartened by the progress I see in developing these themes as interdisciplinary initiatives. Examples of progress-to-date, listed below, were chosen to be illustrative rather than exhaustive.

Climate variability and its impacts

The MRC Tree-Ring Lab discovered six new tree-ring sites with chronologies extending back over 1000+ years in the Greater Yellowstone Region. These chronologies characterize the variability of temperature in this region under pre-industrial levels of CO2 and thus allow us to distinguish between natural climate trends and potential warming due to an enhanced greenhouse effect. On a related project, we are working with colleagues in Land Resources and Environmental Sciences (LRES) to develop a long-term record of growing season frost. Defining the recurrence interval of these relatively rare events will allow us to characterize frost risks for agricultural production in northern Montana.

Carbon cycle dynamics in North Temperate mountain environments

Developing robust predications of future atmospheric carbon dioxide levels is recognized as a grand challenge to the earth science community and will necessitate cross-disciplinary interactions between specialists in the natural and social sciences. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is regulated by complex interactions between the ocean, atmosphere and terrestrial plant communities. While the processes involved (e.g., photosynthesis, respiration) are relatively well understood at the level of a leaf or a tree, there is great uncertainty regarding the magnitude and variability of rates when we try to scale processes up to regional or global levels.

Predicting future carbon dioxide levels is made more complicated by the fact that all of the most relevant processes are likely to change under increasing carbon dioxide, changing climate and changing land management. The national prominence of this research question is reflected in the $188-million FY2000 budget request for a Carbon Cycle Science Initiative (key agencies include NSF, NASA, DOE, and USDA).

The importance of this question is also recognized at a regional level as indicated by a national conference on carbon sequestration strategies, sponsored by the Montana Carbon Offset Coalition, on October 27-28 in Missoula. The MRC seeks to contribute to this effort by fostering development of meso-scale (i.e., regional) experiments and monitoring programs that close the gap between studies at the leaf level and global analyses.

An invitation to participate

A key to the success of any interdisciplinary unit, such as the MRC, is the intellectual synergy that arises when scholars with different expertise bring their skills and knowledge to bear on a focused problem. I came to MSU because of the exciting research carried out on this campus. I look forward to working with faculty in building a research program that addresses the most critical issues facing mountain regions in the next century.

Lisa Graumlich is the director of the Mountain Research Center and can be reached at 994-5178 or by e-mail at


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