When Colorado State University’s Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory was founded by ecologist George Van Dyne in 1967, its main task was to study the grassland ecosystems of the western United States.
Today, the NREL is one of the world’s leading ecosystem research centers, tackling the most complex and controversial scientific subjects of our time: predicting the effects of global warming, measuring the impact of human activity on the environment and identifying the most at-risk ecosystems in the world.
"So much has happened in ecosystem science in the past 30 years," said NREL Director Diana Freckman. "We are investigating some extremely tough environmental issues. How will global change affect our planet? What will the hole in the ozone layer do to the ability of plants to grow? What kinds of climatic effects will we see and how will they affect agriculture, energy production and quality of life? These are all questions that can only be answered with scientists from a wide range of disciplines."
NREL research may help the Clinton Administration make effective decisions on reducing carbon dioxide emissions as part of a worldwide policy to reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, scheduled to be discussed this year. Lab scientist Dennis Ojima recently met with President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore at the White House to discuss global warming research and the potential impacts of global change.
To commemorate the lab’s 30 years of research, teaching and scientific achievements, the NREL will hold a symposium Oct. 21 examining the history of ecosystem science and the challenges that lay ahead for researchers exploring all aspects of the environment. The symposium, co-sponsored by the Association of Ecosystem Research Centers, runs from 8 a.m.-4:45 p.m. in the Lory Student Center North Ballroom. Guest speakers include Paul Risser, president of Oregon State University, and Tim Seastedt, president of the Association of Ecosystem Research Centers. Guest moderator is Tom Lovejoy, counselor of biodiversity and environmental affairs at the Smithsonian Institution.
Following the symposium, a reception will be held in the Lory Student Center Cherokee Park Room for former NREL scientists and graduates who have worked in the lab over the past 30 years.The 35 ecosystem scientists that compose NREL have developed sustainable agricultural systems in Mongolia, China, East Africa and several tropical countries and also have preserved ecosystems throughout the world, including temperate grasslands and shrub lands in the United States. Research teams study the mountain and subalpine ecosystems of the Rocky Mountains, the arctic and subarctic ecosystems of Alaska, Canada and northern Europe, and tropical and temperate forests and the dry valleys of Antarctica. NREL research has defined the important role microbes and invertebrates play in cycling nutrients in the soil–and how those complex systems may be affected by or contribute to increased greenhouse gas emissions and depletion of the ozone layer.
The lab, designated a Program of Research and Scholarly Excellence by Colorado State, also has been a pioneer in developing computer and mathematical models that aid researchers in predicting ecosystem behavior, wildlife populations and environmental impacts of agriculture, climate changes and human activities. These models have been used in Colorado and the Great Plains, and on national and global levels.
Because these climate and environmental changes don’t happen overnight, the NREL is associated with several extensive research projects, including the Long Term Ecological Research Project in the shortgrass steppe of eastern Colorado and the Pawnee National Grasslands. More than 45 long-term research projects funded by approximately $12 million in grants are under way as part of the LTER. The LTER project, funded by the National Science Foundation and initiated in 1982, studies the effects of grazing on grasslands, climate conditions over the past 10,000 years, interactions between small mammals, plants and the soil, as well as plant, animal and soil biodiversity.
Some of the other projects under way at NREL include:
- Designing sustainable agricultural systems in northern Morocco, where shrub lands are being converted to cropped agriculture. This conversion has caused wide-scale erosion and downstream sedimentation in reservoirs.
- Assessing different agricultural conservation practices that store carbon in the soil as a way to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Results from NREL research were used as the basis for the 1996 Farm Bill.
- Using computer models to predict populations of bighorn sheep in national parks throughout the West and forecasting the impacts of residential development on elk and other wildlife species in the Rocky Mountains.
- Determining how sensitive high-elevation ecosystems like those in Colorado are affected by climate change and how human activities have changed the ecosystem of Rocky Mountain National Park.
- Analyzing the potential harmful effects of increasing ultraviolet radiation on plants and animals resulting from thinning of the ozone layer.
- Assessing native and exotic plant species on public lands to predict weed invasions and identify potential declines in certain species.