Researchers are shifting the way they look at the complex ecosystems of semi-arid dry lands; these perspectives are highlighted in a special issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.
Researchers are shifting the way they look at the complex ecosystems of semi-arid dry lands; these perspectives are highlighted in a special issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

Vast acreage of dry lands may evoke images of desolate, scorched, uninhabitable desert. But the arid and semi-arid dry lands of about half of both the United States' and the world's land surfaces actually are complex ecosystems made up variously of grasses, shrubs, agriculture, and even urban-dwellers. Now, ecological education is taking a step forward with the publication of seven scientific papers on new paradigms for dryland ecology and management. The papers are in a special issue of the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, now available to the public via open access [http://www.esajournals.org/toc/fron/13/1].

In the special issues, the articles' authors broaden the traditional framework for studying dry lands based on desertification to provide a comprehensive and improved approach for understanding, managing and predicting complex dryland dynamics. They provide new perspectives for the dynamics of how water and wind move material across dry lands in the context of historic environmental conditions, called "legacies," current climate extremes, and changing patterns of land use. The new framework can be used to assess dryland ecosystem services, inform land-management decisions, and improve the ecological literacy of future generations living on dry lands.

The special issue was organized by ecologist Debra Peters, who is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Senior Advisor for Earth Observations and Lead Principal Investigator of the Jornada Basin Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) Project. LTER is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and based at the Jornada Experimental Range ("Jornada") in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Peters' research unit is part of the Agricultural Research Service (ARS)—USDA's principal intramural scientific research agency.

The articles were authored by ARS Long Term Agro-ecosystem Research (LTAR) Unit scientists at Jornada, including Peters and unit head Kris Havstad, and their colleagues at New Mexico State University (NMSU), Arizona State University, the University of Arizona, the U.S. Geological Survey, the University of California at Los Angeles, and the Asombro Institute for Science Education. The guest editorial was contributed by Ann Bartuska, USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Research, Education and Economics.

The special issue represents collaborations among partners at, and funding by, the USDA-ARS LTAR program, the NSF's LTER Program, and NMSU.

The special issue "Emerging Perspectives and Shifting Paradigms in Water-Limited Systems" was published February 2, 2015, in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. These findings support the USDA priority of responding to climate change.