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Summary and Synthesis of the SW Climate Hub Symposium at SRM Annual Meeting

The Southwest Climate Hub (SWCH) sponsored a special session at the 2024 Annual Meeting of the Society for Range Management. Presentations by Hub scientists covered efforts, some long-running and some new, to provide information and support improved decision-making as people in the Southwest confront the realities of a changing climate. Along with partners, Hub scientists have developed information and tools specifically targeted to different groups and their unique challenges, ranging from primary school students to national policy makers and from intensive irrigated crops to arid rangelands. The purpose of the session was twofold: to provide an overview of SWCH activities to a new audience of professionals, and to reflect, with some audience input, on our effectiveness. One challenge is condensing and synthesizing information to support climate-informed decision-making in a time-sensitive situation. This challenge persists in our science synthesis, decision-support, and convening work-streams:

  • Synthesizing global and regional trends in the climate that affect local activities is the scientific basis for all SWCH projects. Hub leadership for the Southwest Chapter of the 5th National Climate Assessment and a wide variety of other synthesis efforts has led to refining the scope and application of specific tools for accessing and managing the vast array of information sources, including scientific literature. During our first decade, the SWCH created a host of decision-support tools (e.g., AgRisk Viewer, TOBI, FRIDA, GrassCast), more than 50 podcasts and many peer-reviewed publications. While we know how often these resources are used, over the next decade we will investigate methodologies to better measure and understand their effectiveness in building climate resilience.
  • The time available for SWCH staff to engage with K-12 students is limited, so what are the most effective ways to connect SWCH knowledge to future decision-makers? Since 2014 we have partnered with the nonprofit Asombro Institute for Science Education to develop complete lessons aligned with science standards and reviewed by scientists and teachers. The most important achievements have been 1) the development of a broad range of materials that conform to and support state science content standards, 2) using feedback from classroom teachers to improve lessons, and 3) improving science literacy for thousands of students across the region, some of whom are now in the workforce.
  • Tribal outreach programs have been focused on developing a collaborative approach to developing local solutions and innovations, including constructing weather monitoring stations, managing rainfall information and soil testing to support management decisions. Local and regional workshops and conferences have also been effective as a means of exploring challenges and potential solutions with tribal land managers, including navigating funding sources and adapting them to specific needs.
  • The dominant land use, by far, in the arid Southwest, is livestock grazing on unimproved rangelands. In collaboration with the USDA-NIFA funded Sustainable Southwest Beef Project, the SW Hub has explored how heritage livestock genetics, precision ranching technologies and diversified supply chains can improve the economic and ecological sustainability of rangeland-based livestock production systems. Working with stakeholders on ranches in a variety of environments across the Southwest has been an effective way to promote learning about these technologies and discussing their potential benefits.
  • The Southwest Drought Learning Network has been an exceptionally successful effort of the SWCH. Many organizations and individuals have come together in a variety of venues to share concerns, experiences and ideas about dealing with a common, persistent and often, devastating problem. This peer-to-peer structure is fluid in the way it creates new specific topic-focused teams, defines needs and responds to changing conditions. The main idea is to use existing knowledge to create new approaches to drought management and recovery. These efforts are most effectively documented in a wide variety of case studies, which provide objective documentation of innovative adaptation and resilience projects and a way to communicate beyond the small group format.
  • Finally, federal programs to address climate change, such as those of NRCS, are often difficult to understand and apply to specific local problems, especially in the Southwest. In response, we have conducted workshops with each of the NRCS state offices in the SWCH region and we received feedback on challenges faced by staff. Field staff in advisory positions are concerned about the ability of land management to change rapidly enough to highly variable local climate conditions to avoid degradation and recover after disturbances, such as drought and fire. There are many ecosystems in the Southwest that have already been affected by climate change and invasive species, and are now better viewed as “novel” ecosystems with changed expectations and management.

Audience feedback during the session was a reflection of the challenges in responding to climate change in an arid environment. Taking general concepts and applying them to produce actionable knowledge in varying local contexts is a key challenge. Ensuring that all stakeholders have access to this knowledge is also challenging. The SW Climate Hub will continue to use its resources to address these challenges and provide the public with tools to plan and respond to changing environments.