When she was 5 years old and visiting an aquarium, world-renowned desert ecologist and Moab local Dr. Jayne Belnap announced she wanted to be a marine biologist. She didn’t just want to be, she would be. Fascinated by the fish and water plants and the trials and tribulations of being 5 years old, she promptly forgot her declaration. But she never forgot her fascination for science—growing up, she constantly experimented: she dissected bird brains underneath her microscope, tinkered with her chemistry set, and raised fruit flies in her closet.
“I was always that way,” she said. “It’s been a lifetime of investigating the universe.”
Belnap is a retired scientist at the United States Geological Survey (USGS) whose work focuses on dryland ecosystems, and in particular, on how these lands can be managed sustainably. She has devoted a lot of her work to studying the vulnerability of “biocrusts,” the living soil crust that allows deserts to thrive by preventing erosion and providing water to the vegetation. If you’ve been to a national park, or even just hiked a trail in the Southwest, you’ve seen the influence of her work in the “Don’t Bust the Crust!” signs. Belnap introduced the Western scientific world to the concept of biocrusts in 2003 with the book “Biological Soil Crusts,” which she co-edited with Otto L. Lange. She then went on to receive numerous awards and become a member of multiple ecological societies.
This year, she achieved one of the highest honors that a scientist can receive: she was accepted into the National Academy of Sciences, an elite organization of the country’s leading researchers. The Academy is also tasked with providing “independent, objective advice to the nation on matters related to science and technology,” according to the website.
Members of the Academy have to be nominated and elected by their peers, and are ultimately accepted in “recognition of their distinguished and continuing achievements in original research,” according to the Academy website. 500 current and deceased members have won Nobel Prizes. Belnap could hardly believe it when she was nominated by the director of the USGS three years ago—“ridiculous,” she called it—and was absolutely in disbelief when she was accepted as a member.
The desert has always been Belnap’s “center of gravity,” she said, and “zone of goodness.” She grew up in the desert and spent a lot of time in Moab with her father, who worked as a silver and gold prospector.
Marine biology didn’t work out—to her 5-year-old self’s disappointment, she was prone to sinus infections caused by the wet environments of marine biology labs. When she returned to the desert to continue her scientific career, she took an interest in biocrust because her fellow researchers didn’t know much about its ecological impact. They knew something was going on with the crust, and that it was made up of lichens and mosses, but they didn’t know that it had such a huge role in the ecosystem.
What she found, when she looked into the crust further, was that the crust is made up mostly of cyanobacteria, the same bacteria that helped create Earth’s oxygen atmosphere more than two billion years ago.
The revelation was surprising, and unexpected, that an entire ecosystem could rely so strongly on this living crust that was so vulnerable to human impact. Mature crusts can take 50 years to strengthen, according to the National Park Service, and can be wiped out with just one human footprint. Part of what Belnap does in her work is to find ways that the biocrust, and the desert environment it perpetuates, can be protected from negative human impact.
Belnap’s acceptance is groundbreaking for a few reasons, according to Kristina Young, executive director of local nonprofit Science Moab. The first is that her acceptance is an acknowledgment that deserts are not ecological wastelands, as they’ve so often been thought of before—
that places like Moab can be centers for vital and world-altering science.
And the second is that scientists who are accepted aren’t usually doing applied science. In the past, members of the Academy have been scientists with a lot of publications or who have gained worldwide recognition.
Like the work of her fellow members who were accepted this year, Belnap’s work focuses on making an impact on the landscape. Her acceptance is “speaking to the importance of applied science,” Young said, and the importance of using scientific research to influence and create policy.
“We gotta start emphasizing doing something with the science, not just doing science,” Belnap said.
Young believes Belnap is creating a legacy of science in Moab, and that the community should feel proud and excited for what is to come. Moab is often thought of as an adventure capital, she said, but with the Academy’s nomination and acknowledgment of Belnap’s work here, Moab should be thought of too as a science capital.
As for what’s next, Belnap is heading to Antarctica to finish out a five-year grant. Antarctica, also a desert, is 3% soil—it provides an ideal canvas on which to study human impact on soils. What happens to the soil that gets walked and driven on by humans? How could you reduce and minimize that impact?
After Antarctica, who knows, Belnap said. She’s retired and now works about 30% of the time. She’ll probably work on something for the National Academy, she said, like policy papers, or the “revealing of science,” which sounds so very cool, and which she says so very casually.
In the other 70%, she says she’ll live a “balanced life,” working on her massive farm property or chasing around her dog. But she’ll always be dreaming about what other life the desert could be harboring, and how she can help it thrive.