Identifying Best Agricultural Management Practices for Maintaining Soil Health and Sustainability Under Changing Climate Conditions

Funding Amount and Duration:

$12,000 from September 15, 2016 - September 14, 2017

Funding Source:

US Geological Survey

Principal Investigators:

John Zak, Texas Tech University (TTU)

Cooperators & Partners:

Veronica Acosta Martinez (USGS, USDA)

Bobbie McMichael (TTU)

About:

The role of soil temperature in agricultural health is largely understudied, but recent research suggests that it can affect soil health in important ways. Researchers at Texas Tech University found that lower daily temperature ranges of soil in the Southern High Plains were associated with higher levels of soil microbes (which help make critical nutrients available for plants) and decreased nitrogen availability. These results suggest that climate variability may have implications for soil health and microbial content. In the South Central U.S., a more developed understanding of how management practices, climate variability, and soil health interact is essential for sound agricultural decision-making.

This project will implement demonstration fields in which various sustainable management practices can be tested and their impacts on soil temperature and health can be monitored. The demonstration fields will focus on cotton production and will test management practices related to water use efficiency, carbon storage, and soil health. In addition to demonstrating the effects of various management practices, these plots will help to determine how much variability cotton production systems can tolerate before ecosystems and the services they provide are negatively affected.

This demonstration system is in high demand amongst regional stakeholders and will be implemented with the support of the South‐Central USDA Climate Hub, NRCS scientists, and Cotton Inc. It will contribute substantially to our collective understanding of the interactions between climate variability, soil health, and agricultural productivity in the Southern High Plains while equipping stakeholders with the knowledge they need to make appropriate management decisions for optimal agroecosystem health.

Empowering Fire Professionals to Manage Changing Fire Regimes

Funding Amount and Duration:

$112,558 from September 23, 2015 - March 23, 2017

Funding Source:

US Geological Survey

Principal Investigators:

Mark Shafer, Oklahoma Climatological Survey

Cooperators & Partners:

  • Brian Hays, Texas A&M Institute of Renewable Natural Resources
  • Amy Hays, Texas A&M Institute of Renewable Natural Resources
  • John Weir, Oklahoma State University, Natural Resource Ecology and Management

About:

Report: Changing Fire Regimes

Fire is a natural and necessary component of the South Central Plains ecosystem. However, fire suppression and more frequent droughts in the region have resulted in a build-up of dry fuels loads such as dead wood, resulting in fires that burn hotter and impact the landscape more severely. Uncontrolled wildfires have cost the region several billion dollars in the past five years. Further, fire suppression has resulted in substantial losses in native plant biodiversity and wildlife habitat, which also has costly implications. In Oklahoma alone, it’s estimated that $157 million will be required to restore rangelands to their native conditions. Of further concern is the fact that projected changes in climate indicate that the region will continue to experience hotter and drier conditions, meaning that fire risks will continue to increase unless proper management strategies, such as prescribed fire, are implemented.

In order to develop effective fire management responses, ongoing research into the changing scope and intensity of fire regimes in the region needs to be better connected to management practitioners and their expertise.This project will help managers respond to changing fire regimes by analyzing historical climate observations and future projections to identify days which are suitable for prescribed burns as well as days of high wildfire potential. Results from the analysis will be presented and discussed at a fire summit convening leading researchers, agencies, and land owners. The summit will also bring together fire experts to discuss the safe and proper application of fire in a changing and variable climate, along with management strategies for fire and its role in combating invasive plant species, maintaining productive landscapes, and enhancing wildlife habitat.

Soil Moisture-Based Drought Monitoring for the South Central Region

Funding Amount and Duration:

$45,857 from September 23, 2015 - September 22, 2018

Funding Source:

US Geological Survey

Principal Investigators:

Tyson Ochsner, Oklahoma State University (OSU)

Cooperators & Partners:

  • Steven Quiring (Co-PI), Texas A&M University
  • Erik Krueger (Co-PI), Oklahoma State University
  • Jessica Lucido, USGS Center for Integrated Data Analytics (USGS-CIDA)
  • Chad McNutt, National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) Program Office, NOAA
  • James Verdin, NIDIS Program Office, USGS
  • Mark Shafer, Southern Climate Impacts Planning Program (SCIPP), University of Oklahoma.

About:

Soil moisture is a critical variable for understanding the impacts of drought on ecological, hydrological, and agricultural systems. Yet, key research gaps currently prevent existing soil moisture measurements from being used to assess drought conditions and mitigate drought impacts such as wildfire outbreaks, lost agricultural production, and degraded wildlife habitat. In fact, most scales used to characterize the severity of drought, known as “drought indices”, don’t include soil moisture measurements, relying instead on atmospheric data. Current barriers to the incorporation of soil moisture data include a lack of consensus regarding how to best construct soil moisture-based drought indices, the challenges associated with integrating existing soil moisture data collected from diverse networks, and a lack of guidelines on how to apply these indices to different crop types.

The objective of this project is to build the necessary scientific foundation for soil moisture-based drought monitoring in the South Central region and beyond. This project will produce effective soil moisture-based drought indices that decision-makers can use retrospectively or in real-time with data from existing monitoring networks to assess drought severity in the South Central region or across the US. Researchers will also create the first regional soil moisture database for the South Central US, which will further support drought monitoring and other climate-related research efforts in this drought-prone region. This improved monitoring capability will facilitate early detection and the implementation of adaptive management strategies, which research has shown are key to reducing the economic and ecological impacts of drought.

Examining Soil and Drought Dynamics to Improve Fire Forecasting in the southern Great Plains

Funding Amount and Duration:

$154,078 from September 7, 2014 - September 6, 2016

Funding Source:

US Geological Survey

Principal Investigators:

John Zak, Texas Tech University

Cooperators & Partners:

  • Natasja van Gestel, Texas Tech University
  • Renee McPherson, University of Oklahoma
  • Todd Lindley, Brad Illston, Oklahoma Climatological Survey
  • Cotton Incorporated

About:

Publication: Horizontal and vertical variability of observed soil temperatures

The need to improve fire weather predictions for the southern Great Plains has grown in recent years, following a number of extreme fire events. While on-the-ground conditions that promote fire development in the region are still not well understood, research suggests that fire-friendly conditions are determined by more than just precipitation amounts or wind speeds. They are also influenced by soil characteristics such as moisture content, temperature, and human use. Therefore, fire weather forecast predictions could be improved by developing a better understanding of the relationship between soil characteristics and fire occurrence.

With a hotter and drier future unfolding in the southern Great Plains, the time is now to consider how soil moisture dynamics are expected to change and what influence, if any, this will have on fire potential. This project will fine-tune fire weather forecast predictions using soil temperature and soil moisture for a variety of managed and unmanaged systems in West Texas and Oklahoma. Accounting for these conditions will improve our understanding of what regions and time periods are and will be favorable to fire conditions. This information will give managers a more complete picture of fire risk, thus helping to inform fire prevention, crop production, and conservation decisions across the region.

Developing Effective Drought Monitoring Tools for Farmers and Ranchers in the South Central U.S.

Funding Amount and Duration:

$184,945 from September 2, 2014 - September 1, 2016

Funding Source:

US Geological Survey

Principal Investigators:

Mark Shafer, Southern Climate Impacts Planning Program (SCIPP)

Cooperators & Partners:

  • Steven Quiring, Texas A&M University
  • Chad McNutt, National Integrated Drought Information System
  • Brian Fuchs, National Drought Mitigation Center

About:

Report: A Summary of How Counties and Parishes Use Drought Information in the South Central United States

Webinar: Developing Effective Drought Monitoring Tools for Farmers and Ranchers in the South Central U.S.

The South Central U.S. is one of the main agricultural regions in North America: annual agricultural production is valued at more than $44 billion dollars. However, as climate conditions change, the region is experiencing more frequent and severe droughts, with significant impacts on agriculture and broader consequences for land management. For example, in 2011 drought caused an estimated $7.6 billion in agricultural losses in Texas and an additional $1.6 billion in Oklahoma. Although there are many drought monitoring tools available, most of these tools were developed without input from the stakeholders, such as farmers and ranchers, who are intended to use them.

The goal of this project is to assess the information needs of farmers, ranchers, and local land managers in the South Central region and to develop drought monitoring tools that are effective and responsive to their needs. The results of this project will be directly and immediately applicable to land management decisions in the region. Further, this approach to improving drought monitoring could be applied to other regions of the country facing similar challenges. Finally, in addition to advancing our knowledge of how drought information is used, this project will also contribute to our understanding of how private land owners and agronomists make decisions related to landscape-scale change.

Community Resilience to Drought Hazard: An Analysis of Drought Exposure, Impacts, and Adaptation in the South Central U.S.

Funding Amount and Duration:

$254,485 from August 12, 2014 - August 11, 2016

Funding Source:

US Geological Survey

Principal Investigators:

Nina Lam, Louisiana State University

Cooperators & Partners:

  • Margaret Reams, LSU
  • Robert Rohli, LSU

About:

Final Report

Publication: Drought indices as drought predictors in the south-central USA

The threat of droughts and their associated impacts on the landscape and human communities has long been recognized in the United States, especially in high risk areas such as the South Central region. There is ample literature on the effects of long-term climate change and short-term climate variability on the occurrence of droughts. However, it is unclear whether this information meets the needs of relevant stakeholders and actually contributes to reducing the vulnerability or increasing the resilience of communities to droughts. For example, are the methods used to characterize the severity of drought – known as drought indices – effective tools for predicting the actual damage felt by communities?

As droughts continue to increase in frequency and severity, the need to understand community vulnerability and resilience to drought is only growing. Focusing on New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana, this study sought to answer several key questions. First, researchers examined whether existing drought indices are effective in predicting the occurrence of drought events and their actual damages. Second, researchers explored why some communities suffer less damage from drought and recover faster than others. Finally, researchers identified strategies for encouraging the adoption of water conservation behaviors among residents. So far, results show that drought indices are overall useful tools for predicting drought damage and that a community’s resilience to drought is often tied to socioeconomic conditions.

This research was conducted in partnership with two Landscape Conservation Cooperatives. In addition to gaining the scientific knowledge of the linkages between drought indices, damages, and community resilience, this research (1) developed tools to measure drought resilience, (2) identified key indicators of resilience, (3) identified the gaps between drought indices and actual damages, and (4) identified the factors that influence residents’ decisions to adopt adaptive measures.

Assessing the Drivers of Water Availability for Historic and Future Conditions in the South Central U.S.

Funding Amount and Duration:

$223,400 from June 1, 2013 - June 1, 2014

Funding Source:

  • U.S. Geological Survey

Principal Investigators:

  • Lauren Hay, USGS National Research Program Branch of Regional Research, Central Region

Cooperators & Partners:

  • Andy Bock, Jacob LaFontaine, Gregory J. McCabe, Steven Markstrom, Steven Regan, Roland Viger, Gail Montgomery, Tim Kern, & John Stamm, USGS

About:

Understanding the changes in the distribution and quantity of, and demand for, water resources in response to a changing climate is essential to planning for, and adapting to, future climatic conditions. In order to plan for future conditions and challenges, it is crucial that managers understand the limitations and uncertainties associated with the characterization of these changes when making management decisions. Changes in consumptive water use (water removed without return to a water resources system) will change streamflow, impacting downstream water users, their livelihoods, as well as aquatic ecosystems. Historical changes in available water may be attributed to changes in precipitation; but these changes may also be attributable to changes in consumptive use. Understanding the roles of natural and anthropogenic influences on the water cycle is an important component of this proposal. The objective of this project is to provide an automated methodology and data products that the public can view, work with, and download through ScienceBase to assess: the accuracy of available climate data and climate projections, the hydrologic effects of these drivers on runoff for historical and future conditions, and the role of consumptive water use on available water supply.