NRS climate research gets UC president’s $1.9M research award

by Tim Stephens, UC Santa Cruz

UC Santa Cruz scientist Barry Sinervo receives a President's Research Catalyst Award to lead a study of climate change impacts on California ecosystems at  NRS reserves.
UC Santa Cruz scientist Barry Sinervo was awarded $2 million to study impacts of climate change on California ecosystems at NRS reserves. Image courtesy Barry Sinervo.

An ambitious plan to use the UC Natural Reserve System (NRS) to detect and forecast the ecological impacts of climate change in California has received a $1.9 million research award. The proposal will establish a UC-wide Institute for the Study of Ecological and Evolutionary Climate Impacts (ISEECI). The award is the largest of the new President’s Research Catalyst Awards announced December 10.

UC Santa Cruz biologist Barry Sinervo will lead the institute, which involves all of UC’s nine undergraduate campuses. The NRS is the world’s largest system of university-administered natural reserves. Its 39 reserves, which include more than 756,000 acres, feature examples of most major California habitats.

The NRS offers a powerful opportunity for scientists to study how climate change will affect native ecosystems as well as the ecosystem services that people rely on, Sinervo said. “We are going to be creating a large network of UC climate researchers and using the NRS system as a climate change observatory for biotic systems,” said Sinervo, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology who has led studies documenting the effects of climate change on animal populations around the world.

Tall instrumented tower in a conifer forest.
Eddy flux towers like this one at the James San Jacinto Mountains Reserve will be critical to the NRS climate change research project. It measures CO2, water vapor, and energy exchanges between ecosystems and the atmosphere. Image credit: John Laundre

He worked closely with Laurel Fox, also a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UCSC, to develop the proposal. “Working simultaneously across the network of reserves creates much greater returns than the sum of the individual parts,” Fox said. “Beyond studying the responses of different habitats in California to environmental change, we can now explore the linkages between them at large spatial scales, with the goal of understanding and potentially mitigating future climate impacts on a state-wide level.”

“We’re elated for Barry and Laurel, and applaud this use of the NRS as a network for studying climate change,” says NRS Director Peggy Fiedler. “We look forward to working shoulder to shoulder with them to understand how climate change will affect the ecological future of California.”

 A coordinated approach

ISEECI researchers will assemble historical records, establish a new system for data collection, and conduct experiments and long-term monitoring studies across the state. Although many in-depth studies have documented climate impacts, they have largely been done independently, with results that are difficult to compare among studies. ISEECI will pursue a coordinated approach across broad geographic scales. Researchers will develop models to predict future changes to ecosystems and potential impacts on ecosystem services that might threaten the capacity of Californians to adapt to a changing climate.

map of ISEECI sites and NRS reserves across California
ISEECI will launch initial surveys at 24 NRS reserves (yellow circles) and 4 other key sites (red) that form north/south and east/west gradients across northern, central, and southern California.

“A new approach to research is needed to assess the scope of biotic changes, to devise suitable conservation and restoration responses, and to advise policymakers and the public on how to adapt to and mitigate potential threats to natural ecosystems, agriculture, water resources and sustainable development,” Sinervo said. “For Californians, the most important product will be a better understanding of how we can adapt in the face of shifts in critical ecosystem services.”

“While climate change has a global cause from excessive emissions of greenhouse gasses, the impacts of global climate change are local and lumpy across California,” says Steven Beissinger, a UC Berkeley professor of  wildlife ecology who helped plan the project. “The current types of models we use for forecasting those impacts have difficulty making accurate predictions of ecosystem changes at that scale.  The data collected statewide across the UC Reserves will allow us to improve those models and develop new one will be critical to improve forecasts for natural, agricultural and urban ecosystems.”

The NRS offers secure study sites where long-term research and experiments can be undertaken by UC faculty and students. The system has many unique features that are unavailable at other reserves or national parks, including:

  • proximity to a diverse and ecologically-sophisticated population of university students, volunteer naturalists, docents, and local educators who can engage citizen-scientists and education programs;
  • availability of local meteorological stations currently recording high-resolution climate data;
  • ability to sample and archive datasets that can be made available online for public access and analysis; and
  • collective representation of the range of terrestrial and near-shore marine ecological zones of California. 

“With protected lands across virtually every ecosystem type in California and a wealth of prior knowledge about the sites, the organisms, and the ecosystems from decades of research, we are poised to put any documented future changes into a meaningful perspective that could lead to climate change solutions for our golden state,” says Todd Dawson, a UC Berkeley professor of integrative biology and director of the campus’s NRS reserves.

ISEECI is one of five newly funded projects designed to stimulate UC research in areas that could benefit California and the world. The President’s Research Catalyst Awards will channel $10 million over three years to fund research in areas of strategic importance, such as sustainability and climate, food and nutrition, equity and social justice, education innovation, and health care.

“The President’s Research Catalyst Awards will spur UC research and offer our faculty and students new opportunities for cross-campus, multi-disciplinary collaboration,” Napolitano said. “We want to support research endeavors that have real-world impact in areas with critical needs.”

Related links: