The New Mexico State University Climate Change Seminar Series (NMSUCCESS) and Friends of Organ Mountains — Desert Peaks kicked off the semester last week with “Chihuahuan Desert Landscape in an Uncertain Future”, a presentation by Debra Peters, Ph.D., lead research scientist with the Jornada Experimental Range and adjunct faculty member at NMSU.
Peters explained that Doña Ana County in the distant past was 100 percent grasslands, but desertification has changed the area substantially, as it has in other areas, over the last couple hundred years.
By 1915 the county was about 37 percent grassland and 63 percent shrubbery. By 1998, the area was only 8 percent grassland. “These consequences are sort of an increase in wind and water erosion, right. These big dust storms that we see in spring, the water erosion that we see across the roads,” Peters said. “The loss in biodiversity, loss of forest production, decreasing air quality and loss of what I would consider aesthetic value.”
Many variables have contributed to desertification, such as increasing temperatures and livestock overgrazing, but Peters focused on how precipitation contributed to the changes. She went through the history of the area from the mid-1800s to the present day, highlighting the drought and wet periods.
Research has shown that grasslands increases during a period of five wet years in a row, but a similar response didn’t occur during a multi-year drought period, or during individual wet years.
In a future with drought or without a series of high precipitation years, Peters said grasslands will continue to decrease.
She said this is because the grasses are perennial, meaning they take a few years to go through a process of producing seeds, germinating and growing. When periods of wet years are followed by drought, Peters said there is still grassland growth for a few years, reaping the rewards of the wet period.
She said what people can do to help encourage grassland growth is to stay on designated trails while in natural landscapes. If people drive or walk on land not mapped out as a trail, they can further erode “sensitive soil” because there is less organic matter to aid the soil structure.
Neeshia Mac, an attendee of the talk, said this was the first time she attended a talk from the series, but thought it provided important information people should learn from.
“We need to hear this information,” Mac said. “And it’s a shame that that auditorium wasn’t packed tonight.”
Gary Roemer, Ph. D. and professor in the Fishery and Wildlife Sciences department at NMSU, said this is the second year of the climate talk series.
“We’re going to have, hopefully, a talk on geoengineering, we’re going to have a talk this coming semester on how climate change influences national defense policies,” Roemer said. “And so, there’s a slew of different topics that we could talk about and we selected certain ones that we thought the public would be interested in.”
The next talk will be a panel discussion with NMSU Chancellor Dan Arvizu, Albuquerque Sustainability Officer Kelsey Rader and Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department Cabinet Secretary Sarah Cottrell Propst. It will be held Oct. 2 at the New Mexico Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum in Las Cruces. The three panel members will be discussing how their respective organizations are addressing the issue of climate change.