A short distance from where the pavement on Sand Flats road ends is one of Brooke Osborne’s field research sites: a small area of square plots, part of the worldwide Disturbance and Resources Across Global Grasslands (DRAGNet) network. Here, Osborne studies what happens to a dryland ecosystem when it’s altered by forces like tillers, grazing, and nutrient application. 

Osborne is a “biogeochemist,” a title that sounds like “three scientists in a trench coat,” she joked, but one that allows her to break down the big picture science of climate change—something she’s always been interested in—into measurable pieces. 

“Really it’s about understanding how ecosystems work,” she said. “You can think of an ecosystem like a really intricate machine: there are living parts and nonliving parts. I study how it’s functioning, so that I can understand not only what we’re looking at, but also how it works—how it influences the quality of the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we’re able to grow, how we should graze animals, all these things that matter for all of us. So I’m thinking about an ecosystem as a machine with all its moving parts, and also how that ecosystem is impacted by change.” 

Osborne, an assistant professor at the Utah State University in Moab in the Environment and Society Department, will lead the next Science Moab on Tap talk on Jan. 18 at Woody’s Tavern at 6 p.m. (doors open at 5:30 p.m.) titled “Drylands: the Sneaky Powerhouse of the Global Carbon Cycle.” Her talk won’t be a “depressing climate change talk,” said Kristina Young, the founder of Science Moab. Rather, it’ll help people understand what carbon is, and how it’s related to the desert. 

“Her talk is going to empower people to understand how landscapes are involved with carbon, and how our actions affect how much carbon exists in these landscapes,” Young said.

The DRAGNet team, from left to right: Osborne, Diane Wagner, Cara Lauria, and Armin Howell. [Courtesy photo]
[Courtesy photo]

Dryland ecosystems make up over 40% of the earth’s land surface, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature; if you haven’t guessed by now, Moab and its surrounding areas are classified as a dryland ecosystem. These landscapes are “criminally understudied” in ecosystem models, Osborne said, and she’s trying to change that: the science she does at the half a dozen field sites she oversees in Moab help her to answer questions about the carbon cycle, and those answers can be used on regional and global scales. 

Her research spans multiple worldwide science networks; the site at Sand Flats is part of the Disturbance and Resources Across Global Grasslands Network (DRAGNet). The site is small: it’s made up of five 5×5 meter plots, each with a different altered landscape treatment like long-term nutrient addition, physical disturbance (such as tilling), or a combination of the two. Osborne and her team take regular samples, and the project is now in its third year. 

Each site in the DRAGNet experiment is set up exactly the same, giving all researchers involved a way to directly compare different ecosystems against each other—the work being done in this network can help create more accurate Earth models, Osborne said. 

The DRAGNet site in Sand Flats. [Courtesy photo]

Plus, the research here can be used locally: one thing Osborne has found is that the cheatgrass growing in the nutrient addition plot is growing thicker and faster than in the control plot, a result that “might make us think about when and how we add fertilizer to certain areas, and how that might impact regions with valuable native species that we don’t want to be disturbed by cheatgrass,” she said. 

“Tropical forests are the poster child of carbon cycling,” Osborne said. “But they only make up 7% of the Earth’s land surface—not 40%, like drylands. We have to understand what’s happening in drylands: they’re vast, they’re important, and they’re weird … They’re very sensitive to change because they lack everything: They’re low on water, carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and so when one of those things changes a little bit, the outcome can be really big.” 

Earth’s ecosystems are facing “urgent challenges,” Osborne said. The type of science she does in studying and addressing those challenges lights her up; “Doing science is always about exploring, learning, iterating, adjusting, I think, to what you really love, but this is it for me. This is the tool that I want, this is the skill that I want to have to ask the questions I really care about in the places I really care about.” 

She’s passionate too about giving people the knowledge and tools to understand science, especially climate change science. She regularly works with policymakers and land managers, she said. 

“As a scientist, you want to provide the best information that you can to support the decisions, but you also can’t be science-biased—that’s what science is, you just have to report what you see, and when questions are as urgent and pressing as these, that can be challenging,” Osborne said. She recalled a casual conversation she had over the Thanksgiving holiday, when she was chatting with an acquaintance about her work, and he responded that he wasn’t sure how to believe in science, especially climate change science, when the information he was reading all contradicted itself. 

“I said, I can share this with you—I can give you the information, the tools, to help you understand and interpret what you’re reading,” Osborne said. “So rarely are we given that.” 

The Science Moab on Tap event is free, but donations are appreciated—participants can also reserve a front-row seat with a $35 donation to Science Moab (more information is available at www.sciencemoab.org). Doors will open at 5:30 p.m., with the talk running from 6 to 7 p.m.