Tuesday, February 17, 2009

University of Georgia Wins $6.7 Million National Science Foundation Grant to Extend Research in Southern Appalachia

The National Science Foundation has awarded a grant of $6.7 million to a consortium of universities headed by the University of Georgia for research on the effects of climate change and urbanization in the southern Appalachian Mountains.

The grant extends the work of the Coweeta Long-Term Ecological Research project, which has been continuously funded since 1980, according to Ted Gragson, a professor of anthropology in UGA’s Franklin College of Arts and Sciences and lead principal investigator of the ongoing project.

“While we will be continuing the superb work that has preceded us, under the new grant we will explicitly focus on the effect of human settlement and climate change and how they affect the region,” said Gragson.

Scientists believe understanding the southern Appalachian Mountains from many viewpoints is crucial to ensure that their unique ecological and societal character are preserved for future generations. Problems tied to climate change in the region and pressure from those moving from surrounding urban areas to the sparsely populated mountain land present daunting challenges.

The Coweeta Long-Term Ecological Research Program was originally centered at the U.S. Forest Service’s Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory in Otto, N.C., a 1600-hectare outdoor laboratory; however, it moved into surrounding areas several years ago, making the studies of human interactions with the landscape possible. The new grant will allow researchers to focus on experimental and observational research in the French Broad and the Little Tennessee River basins, the latter with headwaters in north Georgia.

Ten UGA faculty members in several colleges and departments, as well as collaborators at a number of other universities, are involved in research projects under the umbrella of the grant. The Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources at UGA is the administrative unit for the grant.

Other faculty involved in the project at UGA include: Carolyn Dehring from the Terry College of Business; Jeff Hepinstall, John Maerz, Rebecca Moore and Rhett Jackson of the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources; Jackie Mohan and Cathy Pringle of the Odum School of Ecology; and Nik Heynen and David Leigh from the department of geography in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences.

The project also has collaborators from Duke University, Mars Hill College, the University of Illinois, the University of Minnesota, the University of North Carolina, the University of Wisconsin, the U.S. Forest Service Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory and Virginia Polytechnic Institute.

“Southern Appalachia provides a near-perfect opportunity for a natural experiment,” said Gragson. “By significantly strengthening the social science component of the project and moving outside the experimental watersheds of the Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory into the surrounding areas, we will be able to find focus on how exurbanization and climate change are affecting this priceless part of America.”

While the southern Appalachian Mountains have long been a vacation area for people in urban areas all over the South and elsewhere, there is increasing evidence that in the next century the area could become a sprawling megalopolis.

“The southern Appalachian Mountains are one of the most significant biological regions in North America,” said Gragson, “but changes are now taking places so fast that cities, counties and states in the region are finding it difficult to manage the growth and development affecting the biological uniqueness of the region.”

The team hopes that research from numerous different angles in the project area will help lead to practical ways to control growth in the coming decades.

“Earlier, it was thought that development would slow in the region, but after the 2000 census, people noticed that it was accelerating and turning into sprawl,” said Gragson.

The Coweeta project is part of the national network of sites funded by the National Science Foundation Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) program. For information on the program, see www.lternet.edu/. For specific information on the Coweeta LTER, see http://coweeta.ecology.uga.edu/.

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