IV.A. Forecasting Ecological Change in the Central Plains (Krishtalka and Dodds, Co-Directors)

IV.A.1. The Challenge.  This project addresses one of the grand challenges of the 21st century—evaluating, modeling and forecasting the biological and ecological consequences of accelerating global changes.  These global change phenomena are critical for grasslands, an ecosystem of worldwide importance that provides resources and services to human societies worldwide, and an area of particular significance to the Kansas and regional economy.  Ecological forecasting must consider changes in land use patterns and disturbance regimes, climate, biota (invasions/removals), and hydrological and biogeochemical cycles.  A better understanding and ability to forecast these phenomena and their consequences are fundamental to sustaining grassland ecosystem services: supplying clean water, recycling essential nutrients, sequestering carbon, preserving biodiversity, and guarding against invasive species and emerging diseases.

To answer this challenge, this project will establish a virtual ecological forecasting center in Kansas across universities, departments, research scientists, students and educators.  This collaboration across research domains will foster mentoring and professional development of junior faculty, many of whom are participants in this project.  With increased capacity in infrastructure, including personnel, the project will enhance the competitiveness of Kansas research universities for an NSF biocomplexity center and position Kansas research universities for regional leadership in large NSF initiatives that Congress has earmarked for funding (e.g., the National Ecological Observatory Network, NEON: Krishtalka and Blair are on the Senior Management Team and the Biogeochemistry subcommittee).  Environmental forecasting is also strategic to the research and economic development goals of the Kansas Biosciences Initiative.

IV.A.2. The Opportunity.  Kansas has the landscape to address this grand challenge.  Its Central Plains grasslands are ecologically complex and provide a model ecosystem to assess and forecast the ecological and societal impacts of global change on coupled human-natural systems.  Human use of grassland river systems for commerce and agriculture has had long-term ecological impacts.10  Both natural (climate, biotas) and human (land use, grazing, fire) factors are major ecological drivers affecting grassland hydrologic systems, soil moisture, terrestrial productivity, biodiversity, species invasions, population structure, and community and ecosystem patterns and processes.  Biodiversity and ecological processes vary locally and regionally with climate, soils, topography, natural disturbances and land management, which, in turn, are affected by a strong east-west precipitation gradient across the Kansas River basin, a prototype ecosystem for Central Plains grasslands.  The ability to deploy sites across this gradient allows assessment of the human dimensions of environmental change in four fundamental areas of aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems: (1) climate change, land-use and socio-economic feedbacks; (2) changes in biodiversity from genes through landscapes, including invasive species; (3) changes in ecosystem function in biogeochemistry and productivity; and (4) hydrological patterns and processes.11-19

Kansas already has much, but not all, of the needed expertise and physical infrastructure.   Its research universities have the niche strengths and established individual excellence in biodiversity science, ecology, hydrology, computer science, remote sensing, information systems, engineering and social science required to tackle the biocomplexity that encompasses forecasting of grassland ecosystems.  This expertise and infrastructure reside in the following existing academic units and research centers:

·   KSU Biology, encompassing molecular biology to ecology;

·   KSU Consortium for Global Research on Water-based Economics (GRoWE), an interdisciplinary consortium for a collective vision of providing scientific support for water resources, utilization, management, and policy;

·   KSU Konza Prairie LTER site, encompassing a 25-year core research and educational program on ecological responses to key regional drivers (fire, grazing, and climatic variability) and global change in grassland ecosystems;20,21 

·   KU Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology (EEB), encompassing systematics and biodiversity to population biology and ecology;

·   KU and KSU Departments of Geography, encompassing landscape change, meteorology, climatology and human-environment interactions, and including the KSU Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and Spatial Analysis Laboratory;

·   KU Kansas Biological Survey, encompassing the Central Plains Center for BioAssessment (CPCB), the Kansas Applied Remote Sensing (KARS) Program, and Field Station and Ecological Reserves (KSR), which focus on terrestrial and aquatic ecology, remote sensing and geospatial data analysis;

·   KU Biodiversity Institute (BI), encompassing a Biodiversity Research Center for collection-based research in systematics, ecology and evolutionary biology, biodiversity informatics and ecological niche modeling; a Natural History Museum for informal science education; a Paleontological Institute; the KU Core DNA Sequencing Facility for molecular systematics; and The Commons, in partnership with the Hall Center for the Humanities, for the study of natural and human systems and their reciprocal impacts;

·   KU Information Technology and Telecommunications Center (ITTC), encompassing bioinformatics, sensors and wireless information technologies; and

·   KU Environmental Studies Program, encompassing undergraduate education in the physical, biotic, and social science components of the environment.

IV.A.3. The Need for Infrastructure.  The infrastructure required to enable forecasting of ecological responses to global change in the Central Plains is based on: 

 (1) Two overarching science questions:  (a) How do critical variations in climate and human changes in land use/land cover affect changes in ecosystem biodiversity, hydrology, water quality and biogeochemistry? (b) How do social and economic drivers reciprocally contribute to, and respond to, these changes?

(2) The data required to answer these questions, which fall into four broad research areas: climate, land use and social feedbacks; biogeochemistry; biodiversity; and hydrology.  The data in these four areas will be collected along two gradients: the Kansas River Basin’s steep east-west precipitation gradient; and varying degrees of human influence (e.g., native, agricultural and urban land use and types of land cover.)

(3) The infrastructure required to collect and analyze these data, which encompasses interdisciplinary integration, additional expertise, equipment, and cyberinfrastructure, specifically:

·    Interdisciplinary integration: Although each of the research units (listed above) has established excellence, these academic units and research centers require integration as a collaboratory across disciplines, institutions and research platforms to study, model and simulate complex interactions between natural and human systems (Pathways to the Future Environment Report, NSF 2005, e.g., Coupled Natural and Human Systems; Biocomplexity in the Environment; NEON, GEON, OOI, ACERE-2003 report-- Complex Environmental Systems).22  EPSCoR will catalyze such integration and capacity enhancement to insure full participation in NSF current and forthcoming environmental initiatives.

·    Additional expertise:  This initiative requires two areas of faculty expertise now lacking among the academic units and research centers:  an environmental social scientist and a large- scale ecological modeler.  Other needed personnel include a database programmer; technical support for data integration, networking and forecasting; postdoctoral, graduate, and undergraduate students; and a project assistant to help coordinate and schedule project activities among the institutions and personnel. EPSCoR will enable recruiting and hiring of these personnel at KSU and KU, which are committed to maintaining the faculty positions at the expiration of EPSCoR funding (see Section J).

·    Specialized equipment:  Physical infrastructure needs include: (1) carbon flux towers across the precipitation gradient from semi-arid mixed grass prairie to the tallgrass/forest ecotone; (2) data sondes for measuring aquatic ecosystem metabolism, chemical and physical characteristics; and (3) a more complete meteorology network across the steep Kansas precipitation gradient.

·    Cyberinfrastructure:  Needs include: (1) wireless telecommunications devices to mediate data flow from sensors to electronic storage media; (2) remote sensing data collection; (3) terabyte data storage; and (4) vehicles and computer workstations.  

EPSCoR will add value to existing infrastructure by providing these needed infrastructure enhancements, which will be sustained after the funding period.

IV.A.4. Research and Cyberinfrastructure.  The research area will encompass the Kansas River basin, which includes all major land-use types in the Central Plains.  The basin is a hydro-logically defined region within sharp east-west gradients of precipitation and native plant communities, which influence human decisions concerning land-use (Figure 2).

Within this region, and in accord with the two overarching science questions, research will focus on the characteristics and reciprocal impacts among four components: climate, land-use and human socioeconomic systems; biogeochem-istry; aquatic and terrestrial biodiversity; and hydrology. 

Since off the shelf wireless and communication components to serve the four research areas are not yet available, KU’s Information Technology and Telecommunications Center (Frost-KU) --- the designated State of Kansas Information Technology Research Center of Excellence --- will design and develop the sensor networks (cyberinfrastructure) for monitoring environmental parameters and processing the data. 

1.  Climate, land-use, and socioeconomic feedbacks (Harrington-KSU, Brunsell, KU):  Climate and land-use—and their socioeconomic feedbacks—are the drivers that change the biodiversity (genes through species) of ecological systems, including key indicator taxa (e.g., plants, arthropods, fish, mammals, birds), and the biogeochemistry of ecological systems, including net C storage, rates of N cycling, and ecosystem productivity.

   Objectives and methods

·    Measure variation and changes in natural systems, hydrology, and contemporary land cover across the Kansas River basin.  Conduct over-flights to capture high spatial resolution imagery; download and archive the imagery; and process the data.   Use digital image processing of Landsat and other satellite data to characterize the landscape and its changing character.  Use a change detection approach involving GIS to document the magnitude and locations of recent changes. 

·   Test the hypothesis that the combination of natural forcings and socioeconomic conditions lead to highly altered and fragmented ecosystems.  For example, do disconnects in natural pathways, such as the links between ground water and surface water, fundamentally alter system connectivity and produce fundamental change in ecosystem properties?

·    Survey, describe and measure the human dimensions (institution and agency) of landscape change.21 For example, the Conservation Reserve Program (an institutional structure) caused considerable shifts in land cover throughout much of western Kansas. Understanding the choices made by specific landowners (agency) will require interviewing key informants and/or doing extensive surveys.  Modeling of coupled natural and human systems will be both process-based and probabilistic.

   Expected results

·    Capability to (a) understand the relationship between the high resolution airborne spectral measurements and various biophysical factors associated with the grassland vegetation types and management practices common to the Central Plains and Kansas River Basin; (b) compare plant development states among years and across management practices; (c) extrapolate model results from the individual study sites to the regional scale; (d) combine remote sensing with historic data and new algorithms to show existing impacts and predict consequences of global change.

·    Predictive models for regional change that characterize feedbacks and linkages between the landscape and the natural and human drivers of change.

2.  Biogeochemistry (Dodds-KSU, Billings-KU): The biogeochemical consequences of land-use patterns and their interactions with climate are critical because Kansas grasslands are sensitive bell weathers of ecosystem response to climate change.23,24

   Objectives and methods

·    Assess the interactive effects of climate and land-use/land cover types on key pools and fluxes of C and N (above- and below-ground, and aquatic).   Measures will occur along the steep precipitation gradient of the Kansas River Basin.  Data collection will employ laboratory- and field-based methods, e.g., soil incubations, field C and N gas fluxes, net primary production (NPP) and tower-based net ecosystem productivity (NEP) measurements, and merge traditional and stable isotopic approaches to quantify pools and fluxes of C and N.

·    Combine new data with data from previous research to estimate pool sizes and flux rates of C and N associated with different land use/land cover types at varying time scales under different projected precipitation regimes. Patterns of elemental transport through rivers across the Kansas River drainage network will provide an integrative cross-basin measure that will indicate the effects of terrestrial habitats on aquatic ecosystems.

   Expected results

·    A simulation model (e.g., CENTURY, GEM) modified to estimate how C and N fluxes into, within, and out of patches differ, incorporating such features as fertilizer application, N deposition, tillage practice, and land cover or crop choice.  Model output, combined with remotely sensed data, will assess quantities of C and N moving into, out of, and through these systems at different time scales. 

·    Capability to model land use impacts on aquatic resources. 

3. Biodiversity (Martinko-KU, Gido-KSU): Biodiversity is an excellent indicator of ecosystem function and response to environmental change.25-29

   Objectives and methods

·    Assess historical and current grasslands biota of the Central Plains and Kansas River basin to understand and forecast how critical variations in climate and changes in land-use/land cover affect changes in regional biodiversity, and how social and economic drivers contribute to these changes.  Database and georeference critical collections of target taxa at KU and KSU museums and herbaria that are not yet digitally ready for mapping, analysis and forecasting, including the most complete record of Central Plains aquatic insects, grasshoppers and vegetation.

·    Integrate digitized legacy data with ecological, climate, geospatial, genomic and library data sets and computational toolsa in KU’s informatics architecture to analyze, map and model biotic distributions of important ecological indicators of biodiversity in the Central Plains:  mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fishes,30 terrestrial insects (especially grasshoppers), aquatic insects, unionid mussels, and plants. 

·    Conduct biotic surveys of areas and taxa of the Central Plains for which critical gaps are revealed by the integration and mapping of existing data.

·    Molecular sequencing of taxa for: (a) species identification, (b) analyzing patterns of genetic change across natural and disturbance gradients; (c) the genetics of invasive species; and (d) comparative molecular phylogeography of amphibians, reptiles and fish for distribution modeling and conservation prioritization, thereby linking genomics to systematics, biogeography and ecosystem function.

  Expected Results

·    Biodiversity models will be linked with sociological and land-use/climate models to reveal and forecast how ecological assemblages will change in response to changes in land use and climate and how they could be used as biotic indicators in other areas across the Central Plains.

4. Hydrology (Steward-KSU, Thorp-KU): It will be necessary to develop hydrologic models to provide support for the three other components.  Hydrology is a critical driver of human interactions with the environment, particularly in the Central Plains, and serves as the primary linkage across terrestrial and aquatic systems.

Objectives and Methods

·    Provide models linking climate and human drivers (e.g., land use and water use) to groundwater/ surface water fluxes.  Elucidate how changes in terrestrial land use, biogeochemistry, and water relations are propagated to aquatic ecosystems.

·    Gather existing geospatial hydrologic and related natural/socio-economic datasets and make these datasets accessible through a common portal in GIS format.

·    Models of climate, water use, plant production, land use, and socio-economic drivers will be interfaced to develop understanding of hydrosystem functioning and relationships.

  Expected Results

·    A common modeling interface linking hydrologic, social and ecological models to allow, for example, forecasting of the influence of changes in land use on hydrologic fluxes, storage and residence time of nutrients and aquatic biodiversity.

Table 2.  Investigators, Departments, Expertise*

*Status follows name:  ASST = Assistant Professor or Scientist, ASSOC = Associate Professor, PROF = Full Professor.  Subprojects: CLISOC = Climate/land use/ social interactions, BIODIV = Biodiversity, BIOGEO = Biogeochemistry, HYDRO = Hydrology. Associations: CUAHSI =Consortium of Universities for the Advancement of Hydrologic Sciences, Inc., other abbreviations are provided in Section IV.A.2.

IV.A.5. Integrating Research and Education.  This project aims to (1) educate a new generation of environmental scientists across disciplinary domains and (2) provide the foundation and capacity for an NSF IGERT program and proposal on forecasting ecological systems. To achieve these objectives, the project will tightly couple research and education through several mechanisms.

Inter-Institutional Activities.  All project investigators and students will assemble in annual symposia and semi-annual workshops to share research findings, review progress, and participate in seminars and colloquia with national and international scholars.  Monthly journal club meetings, shared via video conferencing, will be held at KU, KSU and FHSU for students and faculty to discuss current literature in related research areas.  Senior faculty will mentor the two new faculty hired at KU and KSU and provide leadership to all project participants for creating a collaboratory across institutional, departmental and disciplinary boundaries.  Graduate students and postdoctoral and faculty researchers will attend weekly research meetings between KU and KSU via videoconferencing.

KU Activities.  Senior faculty will mentor graduate and undergraduate students on integrating biotic, abiotic and social science data and modeling scenarios of environmental change.  Graduate students (8) will work with the new faculty, postdoctoral associate and faculty-curators and research scientists at the KBS and BI on discrete projects that integrate Central Plains grassland biotic, abiotic and geospatial variables, informatics, and predictive modeling of ecological phenomena.  Students will rotate during their three years between the BI and the KBS in order to learn and assist with biodiversity, ecological, geospatial, genomic and molecular techniques and approaches.  Undergraduate students (6) will be employed as research assistants to  (1) capture/digitize legacy data from archival collections at KU-BI and KSU herbarium of plant and animal occurrence records that are critical to modeling Central Plains grassland ecological systems, and (2) sort ecological and biological field samples.  These students will be encouraged to participate in field and laboratory research, particularly for independent senior theses. 

KSU Activities.  Senior faculty will mentor junior faculty and the three postdoctoral associates.  Senior faculty will also mentor mid-level faculty for future leadership of regional centers related to ecological, hydrologic, and social forecasting.  Senior faculty will choose projects to test the infrastructure under development and offer new faculty opportunities to create preliminary data that will allow them to pursue additional extramural funding.  The new faculty member at Fort Hays State University (FHSU) will work closely with the aquatic group to establish a research program at FHSU, a regional university that has traditionally received less research funding.  Graduate students (10) will work with new faculty, postdoctoral researchers, and established researchers on all aspects of the work at KSU.  These students will be exposed to cross-institutional as well as cross-disciplinary collaborations.  IGERT cohort teams will be prototyped to develop water resources GIS database infrastructure and prototype/assess interdisciplinary learning approaches. Students from these teams will attend peer institutions in neighboring states for one semester to foster collaboration and research exchange.  Results from these activities will be used to strengthen the planned IGERT proposal.  Undergraduate students (11-14) will be employed to assist with all phases of the research.  Motivated, qualified students will be encouraged to establish their own independent research projects.  Faculty will apply for NSF REU funding for students affiliated with the project, and these REU students will integrate with the ongoing NSF Konza REU site grant.

IV.A. 6. Fostering Diversity.  This project will enable recruitment and participation of women and under-represented groups in undergraduate and graduate research and education.  Students will be recruited from (1) the KSU Summer Research Opportunities Program (SUROP), which brings minority undergraduate students to campus each summer; and (2) an NSF-funded REU project at Konza (KSU) and EEB (KU), which attracts talented undergraduates, including women and minorities, to participate in biological research.  The workshops and seminars will recruit women and minority scientists as speakers.  Further, funds are budgeted to continue a long-standing program between KU and Haskell Indian Nations University (HINU), Lawrence, to introduce, mentor and retain Native American undergraduate students in the sciences and promote exchanges of faculty and students at both campuses in Lawrence.

IV.A.7. Schedule and Management.  Krishtalka (KU) and Dodds (KSU) will serve as Project Co-Directors (Co-Ds) of the virtual center for collaborative, cross-domain environmental research and forecasting (Figure 3). A seven-member Executive Management Committee (EMC), comprising the two Co-Ds and the five Project Leaders (PLs), will head the four research projects and one cyberinfrastructure project. The EMC will have monthly teleconferences and quarterly face-to-face meetings.  Responsibilities of the EMC will be to: (1) manage the research and educational components of the program, including budgetary issues; (2) oversee reporting requirements; (3) evaluate progress of and resources for sub-projects; and (4) develop strategies and secure funding for the development of new technologies and research approaches to investigating complex environmental systems. 

An External Scientific Advisory Committee (ESAC) comprised of three external scientists not associated with the project will provide scientific counsel, review proposals for subprojects, attend the annual symposium and workshops, and provide a written report to the KNE PD (see Section VI.B) and Co-Ds. A Research Coordinating Committee (RCC), comprised of representatives of the research and cyberinfrastructure projects, will coordinate research integration across project components.  This group will meet quarterly and summarize its work at the Annual Symposium.  Project Leaders (PLs) will be responsible for research and infrastructural activities within budgeted projects.  An Education and Outreach Committee (EOC) will include a representative from each research area and a science writer from university staff.  The EOC will foster the integration of research and education, plan the agenda for the annual symposium and workshops, review content for the project’s web page, promote project results to public agencies and other interested parties, and coordinate development of IGERT and other proposals for funding education initiatives.  The Project Assistant (PA) will maintain the web page, schedule meetings, facilitate project communications, monitor budgets, implement the annual symposium and workshops, and maintain records of EMC meetings. The timeline, benchmarks, metrics, outputs and outcomes for this project appear in Table 9.


a For example, see http://ornisnet.org/; http://speciesanalyst. net/fishnet/; http://elib.cs.berkeley.edu/manis/; http://www.herpnet.org/; www.gbif.net.