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July 28th, 2022

Persistent places: Groups come together to define and map climate change in Colorado’s public lands

A convergence research project is uniting land managers, local residents, and scientists to jointly understand how Colorado Front Range ecosystems and public lands are responding to pressures from people and climate change.

The project brings together diverse groups with a stake in the Front Range public lands around the concept of climate-change refugia. Refugia (Latin for refuges), are units of a landscape that can maintain valued characteristics despite pressures such as climate change.

“Many of the things people appreciate and like about public lands and open space are things like shade along trails, or cooler temperatures on hot days,” says Keith Musselman, lead investigator on the project and a Research Associate at INSTAAR. “These attributes are related to the science of ecosystems, soil, water, climate—but scientists often don’t think of these systems in terms of the experiences they give to people.”

“The idea is to understand what people value about our public lands; what decision makers think about when they manage these lands; and what scientists consider when they look at the ecosystems, landscape, and climate processes in these same places,” says Musselman.

By bringing together such diverse stakeholders, the project is helping identify land management needs and challenges. It will also map places that are buffered from climate change—the refugia—as well as places that are at risk, or already altered. That can give land managers information they can use to decide where to invest resources.

“Colorado will face some tough choices in the coming years and decades. We’re experiencing a growing population, increasing use of public lands, as well as the threats of climate change. It is important for the residents of Colorado to have a voice in how we set priorities as we look into the future,” says co-investigator and social scientist Amanda Carrico.

Funding for the project comes from an NSF program called Growing Convergence Research, which is intended to solve vexing and complex research problems, focusing on social needs, by merging ideas, knowledge, and approaches from different disciplines. The program is one of the NSF’s ten Big Ideas, emerging key areas in scientific research.

The NSF grant supports students at three universities and a community college, a postdoctoral scholar, and scientists from five institutions: CU Boulder, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, University of Colorado Denver, University of Wyoming, and Cornell University. CU Boulder researchers on the project include faculty members Peter Blanken, Eve-Lyn Hinckley, John Knowles, Carrico, and Musselman, graduate students Elizabeth Woolner and Nicolas Tarasewicz, and field tech Yang Han.

The researchers prepared to tackle the project by immersing themselves in a convergence workshop facilitated by a specialist in complex leadership. “We learned how to communicate when we don’t work together, but we do work on the same problem,” says Musselman. Carrico says, “It helped us all see the big picture and see how our individual pieces fit into that.”

The science portion of the project will adapt an advanced computer model of Earth systems, initially developed for tropical regions, to the environment of the Rocky Mountains. “These models are dynamic, and simulate the growth and death of trees, how groundwater connects to surface water, how trees connect to water and when,” says Musselman.

A measurement campaign on Niwot Ridge will help scientists develop the model and test its performance. A tram system will carry environmental sensors along a track to take measurements through space and time, to better show how parts of the landscape are connected.

At the same time, Carrico will lead efforts to measure values and priorities within the Colorado public about how to manage our public lands. She is conducting open discussions with land managers about how they are making decisions in the face of public pressures and climate change; and if and how they’re incorporating the values and priorities of the public into their decisions. Those conversations will help shape ongoing project research with land managers and local residents.

“Every community is facing really complicated decisions about land and climate,” says Carrico. “In the Front Range, how do we manage our exceptional natural environments that provide our water and other services? Data must be part of that, but science doesn’t answer what path you take—that’s a values question. I really like that this project prepares and equips scientists to approach values questions, and how values-driven questions can inform and deepen their approaches to ecosystem science and land management. That’s a really interesting intersectional question for us.”

“We’re bringing convergence research, as the NSF thinks of it, and exploring how values align with these efforts in context,” adds Musselman. “Working with local institutions on local problems—that’s something we’re all excited about.”

This story is an update of a news release from October, 2021 with the same title.

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