Peru

I just returned from two weeks in the Peruvian Andes conducting field work on high elevation wetlands and how they were responding to impacts from livestock grazing in a changing climate. We were in the Huascaran National Park, the highest part of the Andes with many peaks soaring above 20,000 feet. Our Colorado State U. group was joined by students and faculty from 4 other campuses and the international Mountain Institute. These wetlands, or bofedales in Peruvian jargon, are essential in providing quality water for the thousands who reside below.

Kings Peak Highest Peak in Utah 13,528 feet ASL Courtesy USDA Forest Service
Kings Peak
Highest Peak in Utah 13,528 feet ASL
Courtesy USDA Forest Service
Having spent many forays into our magnificent High Uintah Mountains, I found myself reflecting on ecological and cultural parallels. Although our highest Kings peak at 13,528 feet was far below Mount Huascaran’s 22,205 foot elevation, its bold loftiness provides a similar experience as would standing on the Huascaran’s summit. A departure results from the highly glaciated Huascaran. Our Uintahs lost their glaciers around 8000 years ago from a warming climate. Unfortunately, Huascaran’s glaciers are following suit having lost nearly 30% over the past three decades. These changes were being compounded by poorly managed hordes of livestock which had overgrazed much of the landscape.

Wild Flowers in Tony Grove Meadow Courtesy USDA Forest Service Teresa Prendusi, Photographer
Wild Flowers in Tony Grove Meadow
Courtesy USDA Forest Service
Teresa Prendusi, Photographer
Our primary focus was on changing vegetation, invertebrate populations, and water quality. At the peak of Peru’s dry, winter season, I wasn’t expecting to see much in bloom. To my delight, I recorded nearly 30 species of flowers in both woody and herbaceous form. Tomorrow I will be leading a nature hike in the wetlands and uplands of Tony Grove Lake here in our Bear River Range where I expect a like number in bloom combined with a plethora of butterflies and birds.

Although virtually all of the Andean flowers were new to me, there were similar families and genera. Of special note was a shrubby form of lupine growing to 5 feet, and another, exquisite columnar form approaching 6 feet found only in this national park. “Taulli Macho” is the local name for this splendid plant. “Macho” is a great descriptor!

Birds and butterflies were no less baffling. All were new to my life list- Pona ibis, Andean Condors, giant coot, tufted duck, Andean flicker, giant humming bird, on and on. Senses overwhelmed. I missed the familiar sights and songs from our mountain birds- Clark’s nutcrackers, Steller jays, Cassin’s finch, pine siskins, violet green swallows, mountain bluebirds to name a few.

Grazing at Fishlake in Utah Courtesy USDA Forest Service
Grazing at Fishlake in Utah
Courtesy USDA Forest Service
I did a bit of research on our High Uintahs and found some parallels related to climate change and livestock management. Although not as profound as calving glaciers in the Andes, or hordes of free ranging livestock, a continued loss of our snow pack and resulting changes in hydrology compounded by certain livestock grazing practices are under close scrutiny by agencies and others. A recent publication “Assessment of Watershed Vulnerability to Climate Change for the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache and Ashley National Forests, Utah” published by the United States Department of Agriculture has much to offer.

This is Jack Greene, and you guessed it- I’m Wild about Utah!!

Credits:

Images: Courtesy USDA Forest Service, Photographers noted, where available, for each image
Audio: Courtesy and Copyright Kevin Colver
Text:     Jack Greene

Sources & Additional Reading:

Rice, Janine; Bardsley, Tim; Gomben, Pete; Bambrough, Dustin; Weems, Stacey; Leahy, Sarah; Plunkett, Christopher; Condrat, Charles; Joyce, Linda A. 2017. Assessment of watershed vulnerability to climate change for the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache and Ashley National Forests, Utah. Gen. Tech. Rep. RMRS-GTR-362. Fort Collins, CO: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station. 111 p., https://www.fs.usda.gov/treesearch/pubs/54330

Slots, Els, World Heritage Site for World Heritage Travellers, https://www.worldheritagesite.org/list/Huascaran+National+Park

Huascarán National Park, UNESCO World Heritage Sites, http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/333

Talking Dirt

Talking Dirt: There are over four billion micro-organisms in a teaspoon of healthy soil. Courtesy King County, WA
There are over four billion micro-organisms in a teaspoon of healthy soil.
Courtesy King County, WA
It’s time to talk dirt- and I’m not talking politics, but real, factual dirt! Of all our amazing planets ecosystems, there is one that rises above all others. It’s the one your home is standing on, the one you don’t want your kids to track in the house. By now you’ve probably guessed it!

The diversity and abundance of life that exists within soil is greater than in any other ecosystem. A ‘biological universe’ exists in a gram of soil. Soil biota within this tiny universe transform energy, create and modify their habitat, influence soil health, and aid in the regulation of greenhouse gases. There are more microbes in a teaspoon of soil than there are people on the earth. We’re talking such characters as bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, earthworms, and arthropods. No wonder kids are so drawn to this miraculous stew of life! My one year old granddaughter can’t resist a mouthful given the opportunity! So let’s dive into a handful of soil.

Biogeochemical Cycling Courtesy USGS, Public Domain https://www.usgs.gov/media/images/biogeochemical-cycling-diagram-showing-climatic-processes-hydrologic
Biogeochemical Cycling
Courtesy USGS, Public Domain
https://www.usgs.gov/media/images/biogeochemical-cycling-diagram-showing-climatic-processes-hydrologic
The majority of life on Earth is dependent upon six critical elements: hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, oxygen, and sulfur that pass through, and are transformed by, soil organisms. This process, called biogeochemical cycling, is defined as the transformation and cycling of elements between non-living and living matter. These processes are dependent upon life in the soil.

Although we understand the vital services that these organisms provide by breaking down organic debris and recy¬cling nutrients, scientists have only begun to study the rich and unique diversity that is a part of the soil ecosystem. Of particular interest for myself is understanding the functions of certain fungi and their roles in storing atmospheric carbon dioxide.

As you may have heard in past WAU readings, climate change is a major threat to Utah’s wildlife including birds, cold water fish, pollinators, and pica.

Conservation Tillage: Minimizing tillage and maintaining a crop residue on the soil surface can greatly reduce erosion impacts Agricultural Management Practices for Water Quality Protection--Watershed Academy Web, Courtesy US EPA
Conservation Tillage:
Minimizing tillage and maintaining a crop residue on the soil surface can greatly reduce erosion impacts
Agricultural Management Practices for Water Quality Protection–Watershed Academy Web, Courtesy US EPA
And here’s where our farms and ranches have the opportunity to play a crucial role beyond feeding us.
Deploying what’s called regenerative agricultural practices like tillage reduction, cover crops, companion planting, planned grazing, and keyline plowing—will not only improve soil quality making it more resilient to climate conditions like flooding and drought, but also increase soil’s organic matter which require less fertilizer. This in turn, means less runoff into waterways and greater profitability for farmers.

Perhaps most important of all, managing farms this way actually draws carbon out of the atmosphere. If all cropland in the U.S. was farmed using these regenerative practices, the greenhouse gas reduction would be equivalent to eliminating nearly 90 percent of our country’s cars. And now some states are considering economic incentives like tax breaks for carbon sequestration farming, and enlisting Farm Bureaus to provide additional support. Will Utah be next?

This is Jack Greene writing and reading for WAU.

Fortuna, A. (2012) The Soil Biota. Nature Education Knowledge 3(10):1, https://www.nature.com/scitable/knowledge/library/the-soil-biota-84078125

Biogeochemical Cycles, U.S. Global Change Research Program, http://nca2014.globalchange.gov/report/sectors/biogeochemical-cycles#intro-section-2

How do microbial mats work? Microbial Mat Biogeochemical Cycling, NASA Ames Research Center, https://spacescience.arc.nasa.gov/microbes/about/microbial.html

Biogeochemical Cycling, Center for Forested Wetlands Research, Southern Research Station, USDA Forest Service, https://www.srs.fs.usda.gov/charleston/research/biogeochemical/

Subsurface Biogeochemical Research Program, Climate and Environmental Sciences Division, Office of Biological and Environmental Research, U.S. Department of Energy, http://doesbr.org/

The Carbon Cycle, NASA Earth Observatory, EOS Project Science Office, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/CarbonCycle/