Extreme weather changes hurt soils’ ability to store water, carbon

Extreme seasonal changes in the Sierra Nevada can have lasting impacts on the health of meadows, which could mean less water and carbon storage in high-elevation wetlands, according to research conducted at UC Merced.

The results of work by then-graduate student and current staff member Chelsea Arnold and professors Asmeret Asefaw Berhe and Teamrat Ghezzehei, both with the School of Natural Sciences, indicate that changes in meadow soils and vegetation caused by extreme weather conditions in the mountains over the past three years have decreased the ability of those meadows to store water and carbon.

The paper, published in the open-access journal Plos One, is titled “Early Spring, Severe Frost Events and Drought-Induced Rapid Carbon Loss in High Elevation Meadows.” It indicates that the timing of snowfall and snowmelt plays a critical role in the development and sustainability of meadow ecosystems.

“If the onset of spring shifts to March, it means the snow is melting much earlier and the water is landing in reservoirs too soon,” Arnold said. “That means the ecosystem’s liquid checking account will soon be overdrawn, leading to a longer, drier summer for the high-elevation ecosystems, and decreased plant growth and large losses of carbon from the soil.”

Findings of this study highlight that the warming climate is likely to have a bigger impact than previously thought, Arnold said.

Soils store carbon, and large quantities of organic matter in the meadow soils allow the meadows to act as sponges to store water and release it slowly to downstream communities.

“If these systems become degraded through drought and subsequent loss of carbon, they won’t store as much snowmelt and the resulting watershed will be much ‘flashier’ as water will move rapidly from snowpack to the streams,” Arnold said. That could mean more flooding, but earlier in the spring, leaving less water for the hottest part of the year when it’s most needed.

Arnold said the research could help resource managers deal with weather extremes, as they have been doing for the past few years as the state faces rapid drying and drought.

Meadow restoration has become a critical part of the California Water Plan for statewide integrated water management because mountain soils act as the state’s water banks. It also means research will need to be conducted in more areas.

Leadership center builds confidence

Shy in high school, Rachel Fang didn’t want to follow that same pattern as a UC Merced student.

“I decided that I was going to change,” Fang said. “I wanted to be more outspoken.”

Fang found the confidence, skills and foundation she needed by completing a variety of leadership programs on campus. Now she’s starting work as an intern in the Margo F. Souza Leadership Center.

“I’m excited about my new job,” Fang said. “I have been through all of these programs, and now I will be part of it from a different perspective.”

Leadership has been a consistent focus of the UC’s 10th and newest campus, with it offering a growing number of such programs. A new dimension at UC Merced is the center established through a $1 million donation by prominent businesswoman Margo Souza.

Souza, the former president and CEO of Turlock’s Circle H Dairy Ranch Inc., made the pledge in 2013 that created the center housed within the Office of Student Life.

Already, the center has collected a variety of programs under one umbrella. Those include the Bobcat Leadership Series, the Yosemite Leadership Program, the READY Career Preparedness Program, the Leadership Awards and the Leadership Conference.

“This is a better service to our students because they can go to one place,” said Steve Lerer, the assistant director of the Office of Student Life and who coordinates the Souza Leadership Center.

He said roughly 2,000 students, or about 40 percent of the campus, have taken part in at least one leadership program or workshop. The goal is to raise that percentage.