NASA grant aids geography professor’s climate research on dryland regions

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — New research by Indiana University professor Natasha MacBean, supported by a NASA grant, aims to better understand dryland ecosystems, which cover about 40 percent of the Earth’s surface. Drylands support about 38 percent of the world’s population but are sensitive to moisture availability.

Continued climate change could have a negative impact on food and water availability and global livestock production in dryland regions. MacBean, an assistant professor in the Department of Geography in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences, will use tools such as satellite remote sensing, field experiments and process-based models to develop advanced predictive tools, such as for dynamic global vegetation.

“We can use the information to improve earth system model projections and better predict how climate change affects dryland regions,” MacBean said.

The grant, for three years and nearly $900,000, is from the NASA Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Sciences Carbon Cycle Science program, which wants to understand carbon cycling and its interaction with the Earth’s climate. Carbon — the foundation of life on Earth — is continually cycled between the land, ocean and atmosphere. Trees, plants and soil microbial activity exchange carbon — as carbon dioxide — between the land surface and atmosphere through photosynthesis and respiration. However, climate change fueled by human actions such as the burning of fossil fuels has disrupted the carbon cycle.

“It is likely that semi-arid regions will experience dramatic shifts in vegetation cover and productivity, with consequent impacts on carbon and water cycles, feedbacks to climate and potential threats to essential ecosystem services such as food, water and global livestock production,” MacBean said. “We need to study the vegetation, carbon and water cycling processes in more detail so we can understand, better predict and hopefully mitigate future negative impacts on drylands that may occur.”

MacBean is leading a research team that includes personnel from NASA, the United States Geological Survey and the University of Arizona.