The U.S. Long-Term Ecological Research Network


Photo Courtesy of-> The Long Term Ecological Research

The U.S. Long-Term Ecological Research Network

Christopher Smith

May 5, 2014

        Many people look at areas like the desert as a vast wasteland for no purpose; The U.S. Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) network looks into many of these areas for research to understand more about the ecosystem of where we live and in desert regions. Sevilleta LTER is located at the University of New Mexico’s Department of Biology. Much of the research is in the areas of Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge, Rio Grande Valley, and Elephant Butte Reservoir.

Sevilleta LTER

         Sevilleta LTER is one of the many desert research facilities within the U.S. Long-Term Ecological Research Network. The goal of the facility is to understand climate variability and climate change coincide to affect the dynamics of the ecosystem within biotic transition zones. According to Peters, D., Gosz, J., Pockman, W., Small, E., Parmenter, R., Collins, S., Muldavin, E., (2006), biotic transitions are described “as the boundary and the neighboring states, a more general definition than typically denoted by the terms boundary, ecotone, edge or gradient” (Abstract). As Albuquerque expands the city will put more pressure as it disrupts nature in the aridland area. Water in this area is a valuable and limited resource, which the ecosystem relies on to survive. The growth of Albuquerque is expected to place the limited resource of water to non-existence. This area precipitation relies on two climate cycles to maintain itself. According to The Long Term Ecological Research Network  (2014),  “annual precipitation is influenced by two major climate cycles, the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO)” (Key Abiotic Drivers). The struggle to observe and record findings in this area is not and easy task. The two climate cycles operate in years, not days or months. The ENSO is expected to happen every 3-4 years, whereas the PDO is an occurrence, which starts approximately every 50 years. So the research, this facility will record shall takes years to finalize. The research will find what environmental impact Albuquerque will have on the desert grassland; shrub land, forest, and riparian habitats while showing how the climate cycles also enable the ecosystem to thrive.

Research projects

        Sevilleta LTER has had a few research projects, which has shown the relationship with CO2 and the environment. One project was designed to understand how increasing atmospheric concentrations of CO2 and climate change. Looking into the growing seasons of the New Mexico desert, Sevilleta LTER can obtain a better understanding of what occurs. CO2 becomes trapped in the air pockets of the soil during the dry seasons. When precipitation occurs and the growing cycle begins Sevilleta LTER can record how much of this CO2 is exhaled into the atmosphere.


        According to Sevilleta LTER  (2014), “This work revealed that soil CO2 concentrations are substantially lower than previously assumed. This advance has enabled a reevaluation of carbonate carbon isotope composition as a proxy for past atmospheric CO2 concentrations, producing a result that agrees much more closely with the other proxies” (Climate forecasts).

        This helped the scientific community to have substantial research that is in agreement that the greenhouse effect expected to arrive in the coming century is validated. It also gives a better picture of what levels the CO2 in the atmosphere will be for a more accurate picture of what can be expected when the event takes place.


Another research project Sevilleta LTER performed is to measure how much CO2 is being released by the New Mexico desert. An increasing number of scientists are realizing the CO2 in our atmosphere is changing the climate of planet Earth. Measuring the gross primary production of co from photosynthetic organisms would help to show what mankind is creating in CO2, in comparison to plant life. Sevilleta LTER has been able to record the difference between temperature and water availability to show a clear picture of how carbon balance occurs. This data will be able to show scientists exactly how the carbon balance will change the environment and the future climate. Sevilleta LTER has been able to set up six test sites throughout the state to perform the measurements of variations in temperature and soil water availability. According to Sevilleta LTER  (2014), the testing has concluded “The likely result will be a net release of carbon from New Mexico ecosystems that may approach 3 Gt statewide by the turn of the century, acting as a positive feedback to increasing atmospheric CO2 concentrations that drive climate change” (Carbon storage in the southwest).

Environmental threats

         Environmental threats to the Sevilleta LTER are apparent. With the expansion of Albuquerque, population growth is inevitable. The facility is in a protected area of New Mexico, closed to the public since 1974.


        According to the University of New Mexico Sevilleta Field Station  (2014), it is deemed a natural preserve and is closed to general public use.  Special permits are required for research and other activities. The refuge has been closed to livestock grazing since 1974, and public use of the area (e.g. hunting, hiking, camping) is limited. The Sevilleta, therefore, remains a secure and undisturbed site for long-term field research” (para. 4).

        Involvement of the general public would disrupt the natural state of the area, hindering the accuracy of their data. With the growth of the city near by it also places a strain on the accuracy of data they have recently started to observe. Knowing the public is curious to what is going on, and this area is very remote, Sevilleta LTER has allowed tours to help in public support to keep the area as native as possible.

The ecosystem

        Sevilleta LTER is located in the southwest, stretching from the edges of the Chihuahuan Desert, Great Plains Short-grass Prairie, Colorado Plateau Shrub-Steppe. It has the cottonwood forest of the Rio Grand, grasslands, shrublands, juniper savannas, and the piñon-juniper woodlands. The sight is also near many mountain ranges, including the Magdalena Mountains and Manzano Mountains with upwards of 11,000 feet of elevation. The area is also home to ponderosa pine, limber pine, Douglas fir, Engleman spruce, and quaking aspen (the University of New Mexico Sevilleta Field Station, 2014). The broad variety of the area has led to some interesting discoveries. One discovery was with the Hantavirus. The rstudy involving the correlation of CO2 with the atmosphere and soil air pockets led the scientist to consider an incidence in 1993 with an outbreak of a disease that held a 70% mortality rate with those who contracted the disease. According to Sevilleta LTER  (2014) “research was one of the early studies to document the direct link between conditions in the physical environment and human health as mediated by ecological processes that influence the transmission dynamics of disease agents” (Climate and disease). The study was able to show the correlation of rodent’s population growth with a high precipitation level of 1992 that help the spread of the Hantavirus, effecting the human population around the area.

Fire play

        Fire within the protected area is a normal occurrence. Fires caused by lightning strikes have increased once the area was closed off from cattle grazing. The trend in how to deal with fires has changed over the years. Early in the program the fires where suppressed in hopes to maintain the area. What was found was how the insect population increased in the areas where fires burned. In other studies, it has also been noticed how insect population continued to grow. In on study some butterflies have a longer flight life (Swengel AB, Swengel SR, 2014). The facility based on finding such as this has allowed fires to run its course and in some experiments have had controlled fires to use as a source for research as well (Sevilleta LTER, 2014). I believe natural fires have their place in nature; it helps to add nutrients into the soil and controls some evasive species from overtaking the area. Controlled fires, I am not so sold on the process, I do agree more research is needed to understand how humanity has mess up the ecosystem of the planet enough.


        The Sevilleta LTER has shown the usefulness of long–term research. With the threat of climate change and population growth, the research obtained is valuable in allowing informed decisions on how to reverse the negative impacts society has placed on the environment. The Sevilleta LTER research on the Hantavirus has allowed scientist a better understanding on how the environment affects all living things. With their ability to show the correlation of CO2 in the ground soil and how it adds to the increasing levels of the atmosphere, we are able to calculate to what extent the climate change will take on and approximately when it happens. The Sevilleta LTER site has proven there is more to the desert than a vast wasteland, it’s a thriving ecosystem with many of the answer we need to move forward into the future with the environment we all enjoy.


Peters, D., Gosz, J., Pockman, W., Small, E., Parmenter, R., Collins, S., Muldavin, E., (2006). Integrating patch and boundary dynamics to understand and predict biotic transitions at multiple scales. Retrieved from
Sevilleta LTER. (2014). Carbon storage in the southwest . Retrieved from
Sevilleta LTER. (2014). Climate and disease. Retrieved from
Sevilleta LTER. (2014). Climate forecasts . Retrieved from
Sevilleta LTER. (2014). Desert fire and grassland studies. Retrieved from
Swengel AB, Swengel SR. Twenty Years of Elfin Enumeration: Abundance Patterns of Five
Species of Callophrys (Lycaenidae) in Central Wisconsin, USA. Insects. 2014; 5(2):332-350.
The Long Term Ecological Research Network. (2014). Sevilleta lter – project overview. Retrieved from
The University of New Mexico Sevilleta Field Station. (2014). Setting. Retrieved from

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