Greetings from the Powell Center: Your browser is currently running on Internet Explorer (IE) 8 or lower version. To better view this Web site we recommend updating your browser to the most current IE Version.

John Wesley Powell Center for Analysis and Synthesis

Powell Center Products

Iterative ecological forecasting: Needs, opportunities, and challenges

Powell Center Working Group Products - Thu, 03/16/2017 - 12:24
A fundamental environmental challenge facing humanity in the 21st century and beyond is predicting the impacts of global environmental change. This challenge is complicated by the fact that we live on a non-stationary, unreplicated planet that is rapidly moving outside the envelope of natural variability into an historical non-analog world. In other words, while the past helps inform us about how the world has worked, it may no longer be the relevant frame of reference for management, conservation, and sustainability. In this future world the two questions at the foundation of sustainability are “How are ecosystems and the services they provide going to change in the future?” and “How do human decisions affect this trajectory?” These are, at their heart, questions about ecological forecasting...

[continue reading]

A Spatiotemporal Clustering Model for the Third Uniform California Earthquake Rupture Forecast (UCERF3‐ETAS): Toward an Operational Earthquake Forecast

Powell Center Working Group Products - Wed, 03/01/2017 - 13:04
We, the ongoing Working Group on California Earthquake Probabilities, present a spatiotemporal clustering model for the Third Uniform California Earthquake Rupture Forecast (UCERF3), with the goal being to represent aftershocks, induced seismicity, and otherwise triggered events as a potential basis for operational earthquake forecasting (OEF). Specifically, we add an epidemic‐type aftershock sequence (ETAS) component to the previously published time‐independent and long‐term time‐dependent forecasts. This combined model, referred to as UCERF3‐ETAS, collectively represents a relaxation of segmentation assumptions, the inclusion of multifault ruptures, an elastic‐rebound model for fault‐based ruptures, and a state‐of‐the‐art spatiotemporal clustering component. It also represents an attempt to merge fault‐based forecasts with statistical seismology models, such that information on fault proximity, activity rate, and time since last event are considered in OEF. We describe several unanticipated challenges that were encountered, including a need for elastic rebound and characteristic magnitude-frequency distributions (MFDs) on faults, both of which are required to get realistic triggering behavior. UCERF3‐ETAS produces synthetic catalogs of M≥2.5 events, conditioned on any prior M≥2.5 events that are input to the model. We evaluate results with respect to both long‐term (1000 year) simulations as well as for 10‐year time periods following a variety of hypothetical scenario mainshocks. Although the results are very plausible, they are not always consistent with the simple notion that triggering probabilities should be greater if a mainshock is located near a fault. Important factors include whether the MFD near faults includes a significant characteristic earthquake component, as well as whether large triggered events can nucleate from within the rupture zone of the mainshock. Because UCERF3‐ETAS has many sources of uncertainty, as will any subsequent version or competing model, potential usefulness needs to be considered in the context of actual applications.

Channel response to sediment release: insights from a paired analysis of dam removal

Powell Center Working Group Products - Wed, 02/15/2017 - 11:13
Dam removals with unmanaged sediment releases are good opportunities to learn about channel response to abruptly increased bed material supply. Understanding these events is important because they affect aquatic habitats and human uses of floodplains. A longstanding paradigm in geomorphology holds that response rates to landscape disturbance exponentially decay through time. However, a previous study of the Merrimack Village Dam (MVD) removal on the Souhegan River in New Hampshire, USA, showed that an exponential function poorly described the early geomorphic response. Erosion of impounded sediments there was two-phased. We had an opportunity to quantitatively test the two-phase response model proposed for MVD by extending the record there and comparing it with data from the Simkins Dam removal on the Patapsco River in Maryland, USA. The watershed sizes are the same order of magnitude (102 km2), and at both sites low-head dams were removed (~3-4 m) and ~65 000 m3 of sand-sized sediments were discharged to low-gradient reaches. Analyzing four years of repeat morphometry and sediment surveys at the Simkins site, as well as continuous discharge and turbidity data, we observed the two-phase erosion response described for MVD. In the early phase, approximately 50% of the impounded sediment at Simkins was eroded rapidly during modest flows. After incision to base level and widening, a second phase began when further erosion depended on floods large enough to go over bank and access impounded sediments more distant from the newly-formed channel. Fitting functional forms to the data for both sites, we found that two-phase exponential models with changing decay constants fit the erosion data better than single-phase models. Valley width influences the two-phase erosion responses upstream, but downstream responses appear more closely related to local gradient, sediment re-supply from the upstream impoundments, and base flows. Copyright © 2017 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Climate change reduces extent of temperate drylands and intensifies drought in deep soils

Powell Center Working Group Products - Wed, 02/01/2017 - 09:47
Drylands cover 40% of the global terrestrial surface and provide important ecosystem services. While drylands as a whole are expected to increase in extent and aridity in coming decades, temperature and precipitation forecasts vary by latitude and geographic region suggesting different trajectories for tropical, subtropical, and temperate drylands. Uncertainty in the future of tropical and subtropical drylands is well constrained, whereas soil moisture and ecological droughts, which drive vegetation productivity and composition, remain poorly understood in temperate drylands. Here we show that, over the twenty first century, temperate drylands may contract by a third, primarily converting to subtropical drylands, and that deep soil layers could be increasingly dry during the growing season. These changes imply major shifts in vegetation and ecosystem service delivery. Our results illustrate the importance of appropriate drought measures and, as a global study that focuses on temperate drylands, highlight a distinct fate for these highly populated areas.

Best Practices for Virtual Participation in Meetings: Experiences from Synthesis Centers

Powell Center Working Group Products - Wed, 01/11/2017 - 15:02
The earth environment is a complex system, in which collaborative scientific approaches can provide major benefits by bringing together diverse perspectives, methods, and data, to achieve robust, synthetic understanding (Fig. 1). Face- to- face scientific meetings remain extremely valuable because of the opportunity to build deep mutual trust and understanding, and develop new collaborations and sometimes even lifelong friendships (Alberts 2013, Cooke and Hilton 2015). However, it has been argued that ecologists should be particularly sensitive to the environmental footprint of travel (Fox et al. 2009); such concerns, along with the time demands for travel, particularly for multi- national working groups, provide strong motivation for exploring virtual attendance. While not replacing the richness of face- to- face interactions entirely, it is now feasible to virtually participate in meetings through services that allow video, audio, and file sharing, as well as other Web- enabled communication.

Climate change-induced vegetation shifts lead to more ecological droughts despite projected rainfall increases in many global temperate drylands

Powell Center Working Group Products - Fri, 01/06/2017 - 10:53

Drylands occur world-wide and are particularly vulnerable to climate change since dryland ecosystems depend directly on soil water availability that may become increasingly limited as temperatures rise. Climate change will both directly impact soil water availability, and also change plant biomass, with resulting indirect feedbacks on soil moisture. Thus, the net impact of direct and indirect climate change effects on soil moisture requires better understanding.

We used the ecohydrological simulation model SOILWAT at sites from temperate dryland ecosystems around the globe to disentangle the contributions of direct climate change effects and of additional indirect, climate change-induced changes in vegetation on soil water availability. We simulated current and future climate conditions projected by 16 GCMs under RCP 4.5 and RCP 8.5 for the end of the century. We determined shifts in water availability due to climate change alone and due to combined changes of climate and the growth form and biomass of vegetation.

Vegetation change will mostly exacerbate low soil water availability in regions already expected to suffer from negative direct impacts of climate change (with the two RCP scenarios giving us qualitatively similar effects). By contrast, in regions that will likely experience increased water availability due to climate change alone, vegetation changes will counteract these increases due to increased water losses by interception. In only a small minority of locations, climate change induced vegetation changes may lead to a net increase in water availability. These results suggest that changes in vegetation in response to climate change may exacerbate drought conditions and may dampen the effects of increased precipitation, i.e. leading to more ecological droughts despite higher precipitation in some regions. Our results underscore the value of considering indirect effects of climate change on vegetation when assessing future soil moisture conditions in water-limited ecosystems.

This article is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.

Detecting spatial regimes in ecosystems

Powell Center Working Group Products - Tue, 01/03/2017 - 13:41
Research on early warning indicators has generally focused on assessing temporal transitions with limited application of these methods to detecting spatial regimes. Traditional spatial boundary detection procedures that result in ecoregion maps are typically based on ecological potential (i.e. potential vegetation), and often fail to account for ongoing changes due to stressors such as land use change and climate change and their effects on plant and animal communities. We use Fisher information, an information theory-based method, on both terrestrial and aquatic animal data (U.S. Breeding Bird Survey and marine zooplankton) to identify ecological boundaries, and compare our results to traditional early warning indicators, conventional ecoregion maps and multivariate analyses such as nMDS and cluster analysis. We successfully detected spatial regimes and transitions in both terrestrial and aquatic systems using Fisher information. Furthermore, Fisher information provided explicit spatial information about community change that is absent from other multivariate approaches. Our results suggest that defining spatial regimes based on animal communities may better reflect ecological reality than do traditional ecoregion maps, especially in our current era of rapid and unpredictable ecological change.

Crustal Permeability

Powell Center Working Group Products - Wed, 12/28/2016 - 09:41

Permeability is the primary control on fluid flow in the Earth’s crust and is key to a surprisingly wide range of geological processes, because it controls the advection of heat and solutes and the generation of anomalous pore pressures.  The practical importance of permeability - and the potential for large, dynamic changes in permeability - is highlighted by ongoing issues associated with hydraulic fracturing for hydrocarbon production (“fracking”), enhanced geothermal systems, and geologic carbon sequestration.  Although there are thousands of research papers on crustal permeability, this is the first book-length treatment.  This book bridges the historical dichotomy between the hydrogeologic perspective of permeability as a static material property and the perspective of other Earth scientists who have long recognized permeability as a dynamic parameter that changes in response to tectonism, fluid production, and geochemical reactions. 

Reservoirs and water management influence fish mercury concentrations in the western United States and Canada

Powell Center Working Group Products - Tue, 12/13/2016 - 16:03
Anthropogenic manipulation of aquatic habitats can profoundly alter mercury (Hg) cycling and bioaccumulation. The impoundment of fluvial systems is among the most common habitat manipulations and is known to increase fish Hg concentrations immediately following impoundment. However, it is not well understood how Hg concentrations differ between reservoirs and lakes at large spatial and temporal scales or how reservoir management influences fish Hg concentrations. This study evaluated total Hg (THg) concentrations in 64,386 fish from 883 reservoirs and 1387 lakes, across the western United States and Canada, to assess differences between reservoirs and lakes, as well as the influence of reservoir management on fish THg concentrations. Fish THg concentrations were 1.4-fold higher in reservoirs (0.13 ± 0.011 μg/g wet weight ± standard error) than lakes (0.09 ± 0.006), though this difference varied among ecoregions. Fish THg concentrations were 1.5- to 2.6-fold higher in reservoirs than lakes of the North American Deserts, Northern Forests, and Mediterranean California ecoregions, but did not differ between reservoirs and lakes in four other ecoregions. Fish THg concentrations peaked in three-year-old reservoirs then rapidly declined in 4-12 year old reservoirs. Water management was particularly important in influencing fish THg concentrations, which were up to 11-times higher in reservoirs with minimum water storage occurring in May, June, or July compared to reservoirs with minimum storage occurring in other months. Between-year changes in maximum water storage strongly influenced fish THg concentrations, but within-year fluctuations in water levels did not influence fish THg concentrations. Specifically, fish THg concentrations increased up to 3.2-fold over the range of between-year changes in maximum water storage in all ecoregions except Mediterranean California. These data highlight the role of reservoir creation and management in influencing fish THg concentrations and suggest that water management may provide an effective means of mitigating Hg bioaccumulation in some reservoirs.

Assessing potential health risks to fish and humans using mercury concentrations in inland fish from across western Canada and the United States

Powell Center Working Group Products - Tue, 12/13/2016 - 15:51

Fish represent high quality protein and nutrient sources, but Hg contamination is ubiquitous in aquatic ecosystems and can pose health risks to fish and their consumers. Potential health risks posed to fish and humans by Hg contamination in fish were assessed in western Canada and the United States. A large compilation of inland fish Hg concentrations was evaluated in terms of potential health risk to the fish themselves, health risk to predatory fish that consume Hg contaminated fish, and to humans that consume Hg contaminated fish. The probability that a fish collected from a given location would exceed a Hg concentration benchmark relevant to a health risk was calculated. These exceedance probabilities and their associated uncertainties were characterized for fish of multiple size classes at multiple health-relevant benchmarks. The approach was novel and allowed for the assessment of the potential for deleterious health effects in fish and humans associated with Hg contamination in fish across this broad study area. Exceedance probabilities were relatively common at low Hg concentration benchmarks, particularly for fish in larger size classes. Specifically, median exceedances for the largest size classes of fish evaluated at the lowest Hg concentration benchmarks were 0.73 (potential health risks to fish themselves), 0.90 (potential health risk to predatory fish that consume Hg contaminated fish), and 0.97 (potential for restricted fish consumption by humans), but diminished to essentially zero at the highest benchmarks and smallest fish size classes. Exceedances of benchmarks are likely to have deleterious health effects on fish and limit recommended amounts of fish humans consume in western Canada and the United States. Results presented here are not intended to subvert or replace local fish Hg data or consumption advice, but provide a basis for identifying areas of potential health risk and developing more focused future research and monitoring efforts.


Mercury and methylmercury in aquatic sediment across western North America

Powell Center Working Group Products - Tue, 12/13/2016 - 15:31
Large-scale assessments are valuable in identifying primary factors controlling total mercury (THg) and monomethyl mercury (MeHg) concentrations, and distribution in aquatic ecosystems. Bed sediment THg and MeHg concentrations were compiled for > 16,000 samples collected from aquatic habitats throughout the West between 1965 and 2013. The influence of aquatic feature type (canals, estuaries, lakes, and streams), and environmental setting (agriculture, forest, open-water, range, wetland, and urban) on THg and MeHg concentrations was examined. THg concentrations were highest in lake (29.3 ± 6.5 μg kg^-1) and canal (28.6 ± 6.9 μg kg^-1) sites, and lowest in stream (20.7 ± 4.6 μg kg^-1) and estuarine (23.6 ± 5.6 μg kg^-1) sites, which was partially a result of differences in grain size related to hydrologic gradients. By environmental setting, open-water (36.8 ± 2.2 μg kg^-1) and forested (32.0 ± 2.7 μg kg^-1) sites generally had the highest THg concentrations, followed by wetland sites (28.9 ± 1.7 μg kg^-1), rangeland (25.5 ± 1.5 μg kg^-1), agriculture (23.4 ± 2.0 μg kg^-1), and urban (22.7 ± 2.1 μg kg^-1) sites. MeHg concentrations also were highest in lakes (0.55 ± 0.05 μg kg^-1) and canals (0.54 ± 0.11 μg kg^-1), but, in contrast to THg, MeHg concentrations were lowest in open-water sites (0.22 ± 0.03 μg kg^-1). The median percent MeHg (relative to THg) for the western region was 0.7%, indicating an overall low methylation efficiency; however, a significant subset of data (n > 100) had percentages that represent elevated methylation efficiency (> 6%). MeHg concentrations were weakly correlated with THg (r2 = 0.25) across western North America. Overall, these results highlight the large spatial variability in sediment THg and MeHg concentrations throughout western North America and underscore the important roles that landscape and land-use characteristics have on the MeHg cycle.

Mercury in western North America: A synthesis of environmental contamination, fluxes, bioaccumulation, and risk to fish and wildlife

Powell Center Working Group Products - Tue, 12/13/2016 - 15:23
Western North America is a region defined by extreme gradients in geomorphology and climate, which support a diverse array of ecological communities and natural resources. The region also has extreme gradients in mercury (Hg) contamination due to a broad distribution of inorganic Hg sources. These diverse Hg sources and a varied landscape create a unique and complex mosaic of ecological risk from Hg impairment associated with differential methylmercury (MeHg) production and bioaccumulation. Understanding the landscape-scale variation in the magnitude and relative importance of processes associated with Hg transport, methylation, and MeHg bioaccumulation requires a multidisciplinary synthesis that transcends small-scale variability. The Western North America Mercury Synthesis compiled, analyzed, and interpreted spatial and temporal patterns and drivers of Hg and MeHg in air, soil, vegetation, sediments, fish, and wildlife across western North America. This collaboration evaluated the potential risk from Hg to fish, and wildlife health, human exposure, and examined resource management activities that influenced the risk of Hg contamination. This paper integrates the key information presented across the individual papers that comprise the synthesis. The compiled information indicates that Hg contamination is widespread, but heterogeneous, across western North America. The storage and transport of inorganic Hg across landscape gradients are largely regulated by climate and land-cover factors such as plant productivity and precipitation. Importantly, there was a striking lack of concordance between pools and sources of inorganic Hg, and MeHg in aquatic food webs. Additionally, water management had a widespread influence on MeHg bioaccumulation in aquatic ecosystems, whereas mining impacts where relatively localized. These results highlight the decoupling of inorganic Hg sources with MeHg production and bioaccumulation. Together the findings indicate that developing efforts to control MeHg production in the West may be particularly beneficial for reducing food web exposure instead of efforts to simply control inorganic Hg sources.

Spatial and temporal patterns of mercury concentrations in freshwater fish across the Western United States and Canada

Powell Center Working Group Products - Tue, 12/13/2016 - 15:09
Methylmercury contamination of fish is a global threat to environmental health. Mercury (Hg) monitoring programs are valuable for generating data that can be compiled for spatially broad syntheses to identify emergent ecosystem properties that influence fish Hg bioaccumulation. Fish total Hg (THg) concentrations were evaluated across the Western United States (US) and Canada, a region defined by extreme gradients in habitat structure and water management. A database was compiled with THg concentrations in 96,310 fish that comprised 206 species from 4262 locations, and used to evaluate the spatial distribution of fish THg across the region and effects of species, foraging guilds, habitats, and ecoregions. Areas of elevated THg exposure were identified by developing a relativized estimate of fish mercury concentrations at a watershed scale that accounted for the variability associated with fish species, fish size, and site effects. THg concentrations in fish muscle ranged between 0.001 and 28.4 (μg/g wet weight (ww)) with a geometric mean of 0.17. Overall, 30% of individual fish samples and 17% of means by location exceeded the 0.30 μg/g ww US EPA fish tissue criterion. Fish THg concentrations differed among habitat types, with riverine habitats consistently higher than lacustrine habitats. Importantly, fish THg concentrations were not correlated with sediment THg concentrations at a watershed scale, but were weakly correlated with sediment MeHg concentrations, suggesting that factors influencing MeHg production may be more important than inorganic Hg loading for determining fish MeHg exposure. There was large heterogeneity in fish THg concentrations across the landscape; THg concentrations were generally higher in semi-arid and arid regions such as the Great Basin and Desert Southwest, than in temperate forests. Results suggest that fish mercury exposure is widespread throughout Western US and Canada, and that species, habitat type, and region play an important role in influencing ecological risk of mercury in aquatic ecosystems.

Spatiotemporal patterns of mercury accumulation in lake sediments of western North America

Powell Center Working Group Products - Mon, 12/12/2016 - 15:56
For the Western North America Mercury Synthesis, we compiled mercury records from 165 dated sediment cores from 138 natural lakes across western North America. Lake sediments are accepted as faithful recorders of historical mercury accumulation rates, and regional and sub-regional temporal and spatial trends were analyzed with descriptive and inferential statistics. Mercury accumulation rates in sediments have increased, on average, four times (4 ×) from 1850 to 2000 and continue to increase by approximately 0.2 μg/m2 per year. Lakes with the greatest increases were influenced by the Flin Flon smelter, followed by lakes directly affected by mining and wastewater discharges. Of lakes not directly affected by point sources, there is a clear separation in mercury accumulation rates between lakes with no/little watershed development and lakes with extensive watershed development for agricultural and/or residential purposes. Lakes in the latter group exhibited a sharp increase in mercury accumulation rates with human settlement, stabilizing after 1950 at five times (5 ×) 1850 rates. Mercury accumulation rates in lakes with no/little watershed development were controlled primarily by relative watershed size prior to 1850, and since have exhibited modest increases (in absolute terms and compared to that described above) associated with (regional and global) industrialization. A sub-regional analysis highlighted that in the ecoregion Northwestern Forest Mountains, < 1% of mercury deposited to watersheds is delivered to lakes. Research is warranted to understand whether mountainous watersheds act as permanent sinks for mercury or if export of “legacy” mercury (deposited in years past) will delay recovery when/if emissions reductions are achieved.

Prediction of fish and sediment mercury in streams using landscape variables and historical mining

Powell Center Working Group Products - Mon, 12/12/2016 - 15:32
Widespread mercury (Hg) contamination of aquatic systems in the Sierra Nevada of California, U.S., is associated with historical use to enhance gold (Au) recovery by amalgamation. In areas affected by historical Au mining operations, including the western slope of the Sierra Nevada and downstream areas in northern California, such as San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento River-San Joaquin River Delta, microbial conversion of Hg to methylmercury (MeHg) leads to bioaccumulation of MeHg in food webs, and increased risks to humans and wildlife. This study focused on developing a predictive model for THg in stream fish tissue based on geospatial data, including land use/land cover data, and the distribution of legacy Au mines. Data on total mercury (THg) and MeHg concentrations in fish tissue and streambed sediment collected during 1980-2012 from stream sites in the Sierra Nevada, California were combined with geospatial data to estimate fish THg concentrations across the landscape. THg concentrations of five fish species (Brown Trout, Rainbow Trout, Sacramento Pikeminnow, Sacramento Sucker, and Smallmouth Bass) within stream sections were predicted using multi-model inference based on Akaike Information Criteria, using geospatial data for mining history and landscape characteristics as well as fish species and length (r2 = 0.61, p < 0.001). Including THg concentrations in streambed sediment did not improve the model's fit, however including MeHg concentrations in streambed sediment, organic content (loss on ignition), and sediment grain size resulted in an improved fit (r2 = 0.63, p < 0.001). These models can be used to estimate THg concentrations in stream fish based on landscape variables in the Sierra Nevada in areas where direct measurements of THg concentration in fish are unavailable.

Temperature response of soil respiration largely unaltered with experimental warming

Powell Center Working Group Products - Mon, 12/12/2016 - 09:48
The respiratory release of carbon dioxide (CO2) from soil is a major yet poorly understood flux in the global carbon cycle. Climatic warming is hypothesized to increase rates of soil respiration, potentially fueling further increases in global temperatures. However, despite considerable scientific attention in recent decades, the overall response of soil respiration to anticipated climatic warming remains unclear. We synthesize the largest global dataset to date of soil respiration, moisture, and temperature measurements, totaling >3,800 observations representing 27 temperature manipulation studies, spanning nine biomes and over 2 decades of warming. Our analysis reveals no significant differences in the temperature sensitivity of soil respiration between control and warmed plots in all biomes, with the exception of deserts and boreal forests. Thus, our data provide limited evidence of acclimation of soil respiration to experimental warming in several major biome types, contrary to the results from multiple single-site studies. Moreover, across all nondesert biomes, respiration rates with and without experimental warming follow a Gaussian response, increasing with soil temperature up to a threshold of ∼25 °C, above which respiration rates decrease with further increases in temperature. This consistent decrease in temperature sensitivity at higher temperatures demonstrates that rising global temperatures may result in regionally variable responses in soil respiration, with colder climates being considerably more responsive to increased ambient temperatures compared with warmer regions. Our analysis adds a unique cross-biome perspective on the temperature response of soil respiration, information critical to improving our mechanistic understanding of how soil carbon dynamics change with climatic warming.

A Framework for Modeling Emerging Diseases to Inform Management

Powell Center Working Group Products - Thu, 12/08/2016 - 14:44
The rapid emergence and reemergence of zoonotic diseases requires the ability to rapidly evaluate and implement optimal management decisions. Actions to control or mitigate the effects of emerging pathogens are commonly delayed because of uncertainty in the estimates and the predicted outcomes of the control tactics. The development of models that describe the best-known information regarding the disease system at the early stages of disease emergence is an essential step for optimal decision-making. Models can predict the potential effects of the pathogen, provide guidance for assessing the likelihood of success of different proposed management actions, quantify the uncertainty surrounding the choice of the optimal decision, and highlight critical areas for immediate research. We demonstrate how to develop models that can be used as a part of a decision-making framework to determine the likelihood of success of different management actions given current knowledge.

Accessibility FOIA Privacy Policies and Notices logo U.S. Department of the Interior | U.S. Geological Survey | DOI Inspector General
Page Contact Information: Ask USGS
Page Last Modified: December 19, 2013
Site Team