Mendenhall Postdoc talk: plant response to climate across North American deserts

Mendenhall Postdoctoral Research Seminar

Regional signatures of plant response to climate across North American deserts: forecasts for DOI management and planning

Seth Munson, Southwest Biological Science Center, Denver, CO

When: Wednesday, February 20, 2013 – 1 PM

Where: National Center, Visitor Center, Room 1C400

Website:; E-mail:


The USGS Science Strategy highlights the importance of understanding ecosystems and predicting global change due to climate and land use with long-term observational records. This core research objective is critically important in dryland regions of the western United States, which house the majority of land managed by the Department of Interior (DOI). These already water limited regions contain fragile ecosystems that have experienced, and will experience some of the largest increases in warming, drought, and human population growth in the country according to model projections. Accurate forecasts of climate and land use-induced changes in desert plant species assemblages are needed by managers because water-limited ecosystems are vulnerable to abrupt and potentially irreversible degradation and reductions in productivity, diversity, and ecosystem services.

Methods and Objectives

To better inform management responses to broad-scale global change impacts, Dr. Munson has synthesized over a century (1906-2012) of climate and vegetation observational records from DOI and other federally managed land at 25 sites (1500+ study plots) across the Colorado Plateau (cold desert), Sonoran, Chihuahuan, and Mojave Deserts (warm deserts). In collaboration with managers and scientists, he is using this growing network of sites, to answer the questions: 1) which plant species may be the most sensitive to climate change and what is the magnitude of their changes?, 2) how does the regional impact of climate on vegetation compare to land use impact?, 3) what are the ecosystem consequences, including soil erosion, wildlife habitat, and carbon storage of these climate and land-use induced vegetation changes?

Plant Responses

He will demonstrate both linear and nonlinear responses of key dominant plant species, plant diversity, and associated ecosystem processes to drought and elevated temperature across deserts. Cross-site and cross-desert comparisons reveal regional differences in how plants respond to climate and the importance of soil, landscape, and biotic characteristics in modifying climate-vegetation relationships in dryland ecosystems.  He will highlight “climate pivot points” that mark important shifts from increases to decreases in plant abundance along climatic gradients, and will show how land use can interact with climate-induced vegetation changes. These results are being used to assist with short-term management decisions, improve monitoring protocols, and inform climate change vulnerability assessments for DOI and federal land managers.

Representative Publications

Munson, S.M., R.H. Webb, J.A. Hubbard, J. Belnap, D.E. Swann, S. Rutman. 2012. Forecasting climate change impacts to plant community composition in the Sonoran Desert region. Global Change Biology 18: 1083-1095.

Munson, S.M., J. Belnap, G.S. Okin. 2011. Responses of wind erosion to climate-induced vegetation changes on the Colorado Plateau. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108: 3854-3859.

Munson, S.M., R.H. Webb, and J.A. Hubbard. 2011. A comparison of methods to assess long-term changes in  Sonoran Desert vegetation. Journal of Arid Environments 75: 1228-1231.

Munson, S.M., J. Belnap, C.D. Schelz, M. Moran, and T.W. Carolin. 2011. On the brink of change: plant responses to climate on the Colorado Plateau. Ecosphere 2: Article 68.

Seminar Contacts:

Dr. Rama K. Kotra,

Ms. Elizabeth Wasserman,


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