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Retired professor publishes 40-year longitudinal study about climate change

| Friday, February 12, 2021

Though only published in December, Gary Belovsky began the work for his recent climate change study over 40 years ago. Freshly off his doctoral studies of calculating a model of the diet of moose in northern Michigan, Belovsky, who is currently a professor emeritus of biological sciences, moved to Montana to work on the National Bison Range intending to apply his study of moose diets to the herbivores living on the expansive property.

Belovsky said he chose this location because of the great diversity of the animals living there.

“When we started looking for a place to work in 1977, we chose the bison range because it has the greatest diversity of large herbivores in North America,” Belovsky said. “A lot of people call it the Serengeti of North America.”

It was only after spending multiple years studying the herbivores that Belovsky says he realized something strange was happening with the plant growth in the area.

“After a series of years, we noticed that there seemed to be a pattern of increasing production plants,” Belovsky said. “All of a sudden, we realized that what that data was showing us was counter to what was being predicted due to climate change.”

Belovsky and his team found that while the largely accepted prediction of the Montana climate growing hotter and drier over time was true, they were also seeing the production rates of the grasslands in the area increasing.

Belovsky said this discrepancy is what made him look further at the data to find the cause behind this seemingly hypocritical increase in plant growth.

“[The increase in grass production] made us then examine those climate changes in greater detail than just the average annual values, which is what most people talk about,” Belovsky said.

Belovsky said he found that the climate was changing differently at the time when the grasslands grew the most.

“We found that at the time which the plants are productive, it actually got cooler and wetter. And because, as you increase moisture, and you decrease temperature, that means there’s more moisture for the plants.” Belovsky said. “A seasonal change was driving the increase in production.”

Belovsky has now published all the data he had been collecting from the past 40 years on plant growth in a new paper advocating for more seasonal analysis on environmental changes due to climate change.

Belovsky said he wants more ecologists to collect detailed data that can help explain the more nuanced changes that occur in many environments.

“A lot of these effects are maybe counterintuitive to what you expect, based on average values,” he said. “And so, we need to be a lot more careful and collect a better set of data to make these forecasts than what we have available and present.”

Belovsky is now currently working on a long-term study on the harvesting of brine shrimp eggs in the Great Salt Lake for the State of Utah. He explained that the brine shrimp eggs are very important for the health of the Great Salt Lake and all of the animals who utilize it.

Studying the long-term effects of harvesting from the Great Salt Lake is essential due to the rare nature of the lake, he said.

“[Salt lakes] have unique biology involved in them; they’re rare in North America, but they’re not rare in South America, Africa, Asia and Australia. The Great Salt Lake is probably the fourth largest of these salt lakes in the world. Most of them are disappearing, because people will take the water away before it gets mixed in with the salt,” Belovsky said. “The Great Salt Lake is relatively rare now because its one of these large lakes and it is not disappearing.”

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