Climate change studies place focus on Great Plains

How could adaptations of landscapes by humans throughout history- including on the Great Plains- might have had an impact on today's climate? (Courtesy Photo)
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July 28, 2015 - 6:45am

Landcover 6K is an international project comprised of researchers examining how adaptations of landscapes by humans throughout history might have had an impact on today's climate. NET News' Ben Bohall sat down with University of Nebraska-Lincoln anthropology chair and professor LuAnn Wandsnider to discuss her upcoming work for the international project- including what researchers are learning about the Great Plains and Nebraska.


NET NEWS: You’re joining this international project- known as LandCover 6K, which is essentially looking at how changes in landscape patterns as far back as 10,000 years ago have had an impact on today's climate, right?

CHAIR & PROFESSOR LUANN WANDSNIDER:  That’s right. It’s an effort that involves lots of traditional scientists who study climate change. But then also it involves a whole bunch of geoscientists and geomorphologists, and people who study plants. They’re the people giving us a picture of what the landscape looked like let’s say 10,000, 8,000, 6,000, 4,000 years ago. My job is to come in and sort of say, ‘Ok, you guys are telling us what the landscape looked like. My job is to tell you what it looks like people we’re doing on that landscape.’ So we use archaeology and historical geography to kind of get a picture of that. 

NET NEWS: As I was reading on this type of research, it seems that most of the models that account for how humans might have factored into land change over the years are really mathematically-based, and maybe not as indicative of the findings of archaeologists or what we understand of agriculture. Is that the case then?

CHAIR & PROFESSOR WANDSNIDER: We’ve got these wonderful algorithms that tell us what climate was doing over the past 10,000 years, but if you don’t take into account the fact that people have cleared forests. Or through their efforts have accidentally created deserts. Or they’ve dammed up rivers. If you don’t take that into account your models are going to be flawed. They’re just not going to be very accurate. So the idea is to use the power of the archaeological record to fine tune the models that exist so you get a much better approximation of what actually is going on and what we might be able to do to mitigate or engage with that climate change.  

UNL Anthropology Chair and Professor LuAnn Wandsnider is leading a team of North American researchers to help understand the role of historical human landscape modification in affecting climate change. (Courtesy Photo)

NET NEWS: So your focus with this international project comes right back to Great Plains- Nebraska obviously being a part of it. Tell me a bit about that.

CHAIR & PROFESSOR WANDSNIDER: The plains are interesting because we’ve got mixed grass prairie, we’ve got tall grass prairie, we’ve got short grass prairie.  There’s this interesting transition that happens today at about the 100th meridian. So if you get a little bit more arid then you get a little bit more short grass prairie coming over east of that 100th meridian.  And if it gets a little bit of moisture, then you have the tall grass prairie migrating further to the West. We see this really interesting tipping point and we can see people adjusting their behaviors in the past to what the climate is looking like- the short grass, the tall grass, the mixed grass prairie. So we can see that and we can sort of see where people increase their agriculture or rely more on bison. The idea is to sort of understand what we’re seeing and then ask the question, ‘Well, how does this affect climate in-general?’ Maybe there’s absolutely no effect- and so we want to entertain that possibility.  But maybe also the kinds of things that people were doing with early agriculture here on the plains. Maybe there was some sort of effect, and maybe it was minimal, but we want to at least factor that into the equation so that we can refine the models out there.


NET NEWS: Your knowledge on this topic is extensive. Where do you hope this research will lead? Where do you think this knowledge will apply in our understanding of climate change?

CHAIR & PROFESSOR WANDSNIDER: I think if we can identify some of the important threshold areas- and maybe they’ll be on the plains, maybe they’ll be in the American Southwest- where we can say let’s strategically try to make a difference in these particular parts of the landscape. We can see that they’re responsive- where they really do effect the overall climatic situation. It’ll just help us hopefully be a bit more strategic with when we decide to actually do something about climate change. Do we need to reforest a particular part of North America? Do we need to make sure that there’s water in another part of North America? Hopefully we can use this kind of information from the past to help us understand where the difference can be made. I guess we’re kind of talking about mega terraforming parts of North America. We’ve been doing that basically as humans forever- basically as long as we’ve been around. If we can, again, terraform in such a way as to stabilize climate change or mitigate some of it’s more extreme effects, than that’s all to the good.    

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