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Media Spotlight: Understanding dynamics of land use switching with satellite and field level data in context of climate change

For the month of March, the North Central Climate Science Center will be highlighting each of the recently announced projects recommended for funding in 2015 that will guide our revamp work in the years to come. This week, we will look at a project lead by Iowa State University’s David Hennessy titled “Understanding dynamics of land use switching with satellite and field level data in context of climate variability.”

What remains of the United States prairie ecosystem is in a vulnerable state. Market economics that favor land use for agricultural production over conservation are occurring alongside impacts of climate change that threaten the land and many of the species that rely on it. These factors together highlight both the challenges and the importance of conservation of grasslands in the Plains and Prairie Pothole region of the US. Importantly, however, the high cost of conservation does not detract from the value of this land. Grasslands in this region provide a safe space for nesting waterfowl and other species, and play a vital role in improving the quality of water flowing through the Mississippi River – water that is the lifeblood of agriculture in the Midwest. 

In these changing times, it is vital that conservation managers are able to allocate tight financial resources to the areas where conservation will be the most beneficial and impactful. The conversion of grasslands to croplands has been studied in the past, but little research has considered the direct impacts of regional climate change on the productivity and vulnerability of lands being considered for conservation. The trend of rapid and wide-spread land conversion, particularly on private lands, is concerning when considering future climate change projections for the region. By incorporating climate impacts and dynamic land use change research into existing conservation planning tools, the research team hopes to help conservation managers identify lands to target for grassland protection that provide the most ecologic and economic benefit in light of a changing climate.

The team will look at a number of factors to help them determine the best use of resources, including historical land use switching in the area, land conversion costs, and crop vulnerabilities to weather events and climate change. They will then provide resource managers with practical analytical tools to assess the likelihood of grassland conversion to cropping and the cost of protecting these lands under different climate and economic scenarios. These models will help land managers to determine where easement dollars can be best allocated to help them reach their goal of 12 million acres of protected grassland.

More information on this and other funded projects can be found here.