Land Use and Climate Change

We thought it would be useful to outline what kind of scientific research is performed through the Coweeta Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) program. How population growth, changes in climate, and changes in the way that people use land affect ecosystem services are the main questions that guide research conducted through the Coweeta LTER. Ecosystem services are benefits that the environment provides naturally to humans such as clean drinking water, plants that can be used as medicines, crop pollination, or recreational enjoyment. Coweeta researchers are especially interested in ecosystem services of clean and reliable water supplies and benefits provided by plant and animal diversity.

In referring to population growth in the Southeast, researchers involved in the Coweeta LTER often use the term the “Piedmont Megapolitan Region.” The term megapolitan is something usually associated with the Northeast, where it refers to that concentrated group of cities like New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Washington, D.C.

Our region is growing so fast the term is now used to describe the region from Charlotte to Atlanta, including the southern Appalachians. The census shows that the population in this area is both booming and sprawling. For example, Atlanta grew by 5.3 percent inside its city borders and a whopping 18.4 percent outside its city borders from 1990 to 2000, showing the trend of growth that is creeping away from the center of the city and towards the mountains. For instance, in Macon County, the population grew an astounding 26.9 percent from 1990 to 2000 and 11.5 percent from 2000 to 2010.

Visitors from these urban areas come to the mountains to enjoy the weather, the beautiful landscape, and recreate in the forests and streams. New residents need places to live, water to drink, and roads to drive on. This rapid regional and local growth provides opportunities for economic growth and development, but also raises concerns over the ability of mountain communities to meet the demands for water and other services, while maintaining the rural character, quality of life for future generations, and the integrity of local forests and the plants and animals that live in them.

We hope that Coweeta research will help meet the challenge of balancing the need for robust economic development with the importance of maintaining environmental quality.

Whether you agree that humans are causing the climate to change or not, most folks have noticed that the weather has been different.

The seasons seem less predictable, birdwatchers might have noticed their favorite birds arriving earlier than before, droughts are more frequent, and storms seem more intense.

Some of the possible changes that scientists are predicting for the future include dryer summers and more intense rainfall events. If there is one thing that we have learned about long-term research, it is that it takes more than one or two years worth of data to have robust confidence in determining long-term trends in something as complex as climate. Fortunately, Coweeta Hydrologic Lab has been measuring precipitation and temperature since 1934, and we look forward to exploring some of this data in future columns.

We hope that this brief explanation was helpful in understanding what we study at the Coweeta LTER. Although we have scientists studying everything from how Black-bellied Salamanders respond to loss of forest cover to how an invasive exotic grass impacts nutrient cycling, from understanding the impacts of conservation easements on modern real estate prices to modeling the size class distributions of Cherokee villages in 1721, all of these studies contribute to answering the main research question: how does population growth, changes in climate, and changes in the way that people use land affect ecosystem services?

Please don’t hesitate to contact us with questions or suggestions — though we can’t promise to know the answer, we can promise to do our best to address it!

Editor’s note: The Coweeta Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) project will be contributing a bi-monthly column to introduce the public to the program’s scientific research and explain how that research can be used to inform local decision making. Researchers also hope the column will serve as an invitation for discussion among community members and between the community and LTER scientists. A core of people at Coweeta LTER is responsible for the content of these articles. Your input, questions and suggestions are welcome; contact information appears at the end of this column.


This column is produced by members of the Coweeta Listening Project (CLP), a branch of the Coweeta Long Term Ecological Research Program. Views expressed here are not representative of the USDA Forest Service or the Coweeta Hydrologic Lab. Please share questions, comments, or suggestions for future topics at or Coweeta Listening Project, UGA, 210 Field St., Room 204, Athens, Georgia 30602.


Original Citation: The Coweeta Listening Project. Franklin Press. Column on "Science, Public Policy, Community." Page B6. June 3, 2011.