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K-State researchers study response of prairie ecosystem

MANHATTAN -- What does Kansas' weather and life have in common? In the words of Forrest Gump, both are like a box of chocolates. "You're never sure what you're going to get." Rain or drought. Drought or rain.

Concerns about future climate changes resulting from human activities often focus on the effects of increases in average air temperatures or changes in average precipitation amounts. But climate models also predict increases in climate extremes such as more frequent large rainfall events or more severe droughts. This aspect of climate change can lead to an increase in climatic variability without accompanying changes in average temperatures or total precipitation amounts, according to a report by a team of researchers at Kansas State University.

The team, headed by Alan Knapp, a university distinguished professor of biology, and John Blair and Phil Fay, professors of biology, has been studying how grasslands respond to increases in the variability of rainfall patterns to better understand how rapidly and to what extent ecosystems might respond to a future with a more extreme climate. Their findings appear in the latest issue of Science.

A key feature of the four-year field study is that the team was able to construct 12 rainfall "shelters" on the Konza Prairie -- essentially greenhouses with clear plastic roofs but without sidewalls -- that allowed the researchers to collect and store rainfall as it occurred and use it in turn to manipulate rainfall patterns in large grassland plots.

The research team was able to alter the rainfall variability by using the collected rainfall to increase the size of individual rainfall events and lengthen the periods of time between rainfall events by 50 percent, thus effectively increasing the severity of dry periods between storms without altering the total amount of precipitation received during the growing season in their experimental plots.

"All plots get the same amount of
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Contact: Alan Knapp
aknapp@k-state.edu
785-532-7094
Kansas State University
12-Dec-2002


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