Measuring the impact of drought

16th June 2020

QUT’s Samford Ecological Research Facility (SERF) is contributing to the International Drought Experiment (IDE) through an innovative drought simulation project.

Coordinated by Colorado State University and the National Science Foundation, the IDE is a global network of sites investigating the sensitivity of different ecosystems to drought. The network covers a wide range of ecosystems and connects researchers across countries to work collaboratively in addressing important questions about drought and its impacts. 

Institute for Future Environments Research Infrastructure Coordinator Dr Bek Christensen is managing QUT’s involvement in the project. 

“Over time, we hope many more QUT researchers and students will be involved in the project, and will bring their own inputs and questions to investigate using SERF and the international network of sites and data the IDE gives us access to,” Dr Christensen said. 

As part of the project, SERF Site Technician Marcus Yates has overseen the construction of experimental plots featuring structures that catch rainfall and drain it away from the underlying ground. These structures cover 50 percent of the area in the experimental plots and will simulate drought conditions by substantially reducing the rainfall that reaches the ground.

QUT's Samford Ecological Research Facility International Drought Experiment experimental plots

The project aims to determine how and why terrestrial ecosystems differ in their sensitivity to extreme drought. Measurements taken focus on primary productivity, soil moisture, soil carbon and nitrogen, and plant community composition. 

By recording these measurements throughout the five-year project, QUT researchers hope to gain a better understanding of how vegetation growth and survival and soil characteristics change in response to drought. 

The results from SERF’s experimental plots will be combined with data from other IDE network sites, building a global picture of how different ecosystems respond to drought and why they respond in the way they do.

QUT researcher Santiago Diaz Torres at Samford Ecological Research Facility's International Drought Experiment plot

SERF’s location in south-east Queensland is not immune to the devastation caused by extended drought, with parts of the region experiencing record low rainfall measurements in recent years.  

In his work on site, Mr Yates has noticed distinct changes in SERF’s environment due to recent severe drought conditions.

“There was a tremendous amount of leaf fall. Large eucalyptus and drought-hardy shrubs were extremely stressed and dropped their leaves to minimise moisture loss through transpiration. They went into survival mode,” Mr Yates said.

The United Nations’ 2020 World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought on 17 June reminds us that land degradation neutrality is achievable through problem-solving, strong community involvement and cooperation at all levels. 

Lessons learned from research projects like the International Drought Experiment, and others undertaken by QUT's Centre for the Environment, will help to conserve and improve biological diversity, as well as enable a better understanding of the impact that human activities, such as agriculture and industry, have on our ecosystems.

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