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Research Reveals Impacts of Environmental Change
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For more than 20 years, Robertson has led the Kellogg Biological Station Long-Term Ecological Research (KBS LTER) program, part of the LTER network that was established more than 30 years ago. This important milestone is marked by six new papers released today in a special issue of the scientific journal BioScience.

Source: Michigan State University, College of Agriculture and Natural Resources

Contact: Holly Whetstone at 517-355-0123


MSU Part of Research Network Celebrating More Than 30 Years of Key Ecological Findings - Long-term research reveals causes and consequences of environmental change

Spring came early this year in Michigan, consistent with the statewide trend of longer growing seasons that Michiganders have experienced in the past few decades. Without long-term research, understanding the effects of such environmental change on Michigan’s agriculture, water and other natural resources would be difficult, said Phil Robertson, Michigan State University (MSU) distinguished professor of crop and soil sciences. For more than 20 years, Robertson has led the Kellogg Biological Station Long-Term Ecological Research (KBS LTER) program, part of the LTER network that was established more than 30 years ago. This important milestone is marked by six new papers released today in a special issue of the scientific journal BioScience.

Robertson and MSU professor Doug Landis – both MSU AgBioResearch scientists – are among the group of LTER researchers with articles published in the BioScience issue. LTER, a program of the National Science Foundation (NSF), was started in 1980 to provide sites for ecologists to address questions that require long periods of study to answer. There are more than 26 sites throughout the world, including the KBS LTER site at the MSU W.K. Kellogg Biological Station near Kalamazoo, Mich.

Since 1988 -- the year that KBS joined the LTER network -- hundreds of scientists have visited this rural landscape in southwestern Michigan, where research is focused on agricultural ecosystems. They come to address the pressing agricultural challenge of how to provide the food and biofuel feedstocks needed by society while improving sustainability and minimizing negative environmental consequences. Other LTER sites represent the full range of Earth ecosystems, from Arctic tundra to tropical Pacific islands to deserts, forests, urban areas, grasslands and even Antarctic coastlines.

Robertson, lead author of the first article in the BioScience series, noted the 30-year success of the network in documenting and understanding environmental changes that are difficult to detect in short-term studies. He also described how research across multiple LTER sites has contributed to new tests of ecological theory, as has a recent emphasis on the role that humans play as drivers of ecological change.

“As we move into an era where human decisions affect even the most remote ecosystems, we need more than ever to understand how decisions cause ecological change both planned and inadvertent,” Robertson said. “Many of these changes take a long time to play out, and LTER helps us to understand their underlying origins and effects. Ultimately, that understanding will help us to better envision and shape the Earth’s future.”

Unlike most grant-funded research that spans a few years, LTER studies are often sustained over decades, documenting gradual changes and sudden surprises that often cannot be revealed by short-term studies. Landis co-authored the article that highlights the important role of long-term experiments.

“Long-term field experiments are critical for discovering the causes and consequences of environmental change,” Landis said. “Even in managed ecosystems like Michigan field crops, we can miss the boat without a long-term perspective. Take the invasive multicolored Asian lady beetle, for example. In the 17 years since its first detection at KBS, we have observed three distinct population phases -- each lasting from five to seven years -- where its abundance varies from very low to extremely high. Short-term studies would not have captured what was really going on. Understanding the longer term trends allows us to better predict the lady beetle’s interactions with existing beneficial insects and other species that we are concerned about, such as the agricultural pest the soybean aphid or the invasive plant common buckthorn. This knowledge can help us develop sound management strategies for our agricultural landscapes.”

MSU AgBioResearch director Steve Pueppke said the long-term research conducted at the LTER provides an opportunity to understand the past and help forecast future environmental change.

“This network of long-term experiments taking place in climates from polar to tropical, from maritime to continental, and in ecosystems that range from Antarctic valleys to Michigan cropland, is crucial to solving many of the environmental problems facing society today,” Pueppke said.

Water, for example, is a critical resource likely to be ever more important in a changing world. In semi-arid regions such as the southwestern United States, mountain snowpacks are the dominant source of water for human consumption and irrigation. A long-term LTER study of 19 watersheds across the country shows that, as average temperatures increase in these snowy ecosystems, a significant amount of stream water is lost to transpiration and evaporation. Similar effects are likely to occur in the Great Lakes region, affecting wetlands, lakes and irrigated cropland, and the benefits they provide to humans.

The BioScience issue also maps out a future for LTER research.

“LTER has outlined an ambitious research agenda for its next decade of science,” Robertson said. “New and ongoing research will provide decision makers with the insights needed to evaluate existing environmental policies and to define possible new directions.”

Research findings will become especially valuable as demand for natural resources increases with the global human population, which the United Nations projects to reach at least 9 billion by 2050.

“Research at KBS and at other working-land sites will be especially valuable for learning how to feed more people well and with less environmental impact,” Robertson said.

Each year, nearly 2,000 scientists and students carry out more than 200 large-scale LTER field experiments. The resulting datasets are made freely and publicly available online. More than 100 scientists conduct research at the KBS LTER site.