Central Arizona - Phoenix LTER - Research Topics

CAP LTER is a multi-disciplinary, urban ecological investigation of the socio-ecological systems in central Arizona. The central research question that guides the project's research is: How do the services provided by evolving urban ecosystems affect human outcomes and behavior, and how does human action (responses) alter patterns of ecosystem structure and function, and ultimately, urban sustainability, in a dynamic environment?

To address this question, the CAP LTER project relies on data from five foundational research areas and analyses conducted in four integrative project areas. In addition, CAP conducts synthesis activities across all project areas, focusing on results from the first 12 years of CAP research, as well as activities to construct scenarios of future change in Central Arizona.

Integrative Project Areas

Climate, Ecosystems, and People:

Our central goal is to understand interactions among urban climate, ecosystems, and social systems in the Phoenix metropolitan region. Our work will advance basic science while facilitating decision-making about the mitigation of and adaptations to urban climate change in arid socio-ecological systems. We will create a local “geography” of climate that incorporates demands on resources (landscape, water, and energy), stakeholder perceptions of climate change, economic indicators (willingness to pay for ecosystem services), human vulnerability indicators (heat-related comfort, morbidity, and mortality), and models of future weather and climate in the CAP region.

Research questions to be addressed:

  • How does local climate influence ecosystem function and structure and consequently the provision or alteration of ecosystem services related to climate?
  • What are people's perceptions of local climate and the ecosystem services associated with climate, and how do people value these services?
  • How does a spatially heterogeneous pattern of regional temperatures affect the distribution of ecosystem services and health disparities among different social groups?

Water Dynamics in a Desert City:

How does the management of urban water systems in cities affect feedbacks and tradeoffs among water-related ecosystem services, and how will climate change and uncertainty affect these tradeoffs? We define the urban water system as the human capital and technology that provides water and manages wastewater and stormwater in cities. Management is at all scales, from regional water management to choices made at the individual level in domestic water use. Water IPA research will focus on the "riparianization" of desert ecosystems as urbanization reallocates water broadly across the landscape, compared to the prehistoric distribution of water in a few large rivers (this concept may be more broadly generalized as the "arboreolization" of grassland ecosystems by urbanization). Riparianization may be the fundamentally most important effect of urbanization in aridland cities. It is a product of the conversion of natural hydrology to manmade hydrology via modification (local changes), procurement (regional changes), and management (temporal changes).

Research questions to be addressed:

  • How does urbanization alter the hydrologic connectivity of aridland ecosystems and modify watershed boundaries and configurations?
  • Can "riparianization" be better understood [from hydrologic, ecological, and social perspectives] if water systems are studied before, during, and after the urbanization process?
  • How can the virtual water concept be combined with tradeoffs models (economic and otherwise) to quantify feedbacks among water-related ecosystem services?

Biogeochemical Patterns, Processes, and Human Outcomes:

Energy flow and material cycling in ecosystems are the processes that support other ecosystem services, and as such, are often hidden from human perception and inadvertently managed. On the other hand, deliberate human manipulation of nutrient cycles has supported societal advances such as the "green revolution" and technological and infrastructural improvements. Research in CAP has long centered on understanding how urban biogeochemical cycles differ from those of undeveloped ecosystems and the consequences of those altered cycles for human well-being. Biogeochemical fluxes describe the transport of material between geochemical reservoirs, the press events of nutrient deposition, and ecosystem services including nutrient cycling and regulation of air and water quality. The organization of this research is multi-scaled, from individual households/yards and agricultural or desert plots to the regional socio-ecological system.

Research questions to be addressed:

  • How do urban elemental cycles differ qualitatively and quantitatively from those of the non-human dominated ecosystems, especially in terms of the ultimate fates of nutrient and persistent organic pollutants?
  • What are the multi-scalar drivers of residential landscape management decisions in metropolitan Phoenix, AZ, and how do these practices affect ecological properties and ecosystem services?
  • In the CAP region, are ecosystem services derived from biogeochemical processes distributed inequitably? What are the socio-ecological drivers and consequences of inequitable distributions of ecosystem services? How, if at all, have these patterns and processes changed over the last decade?

    Human Decisions and Biodiversity: Populations, Food Webs, and Organismal Interactions with Humans

    How do human activities, behaviors, and values change biodiversity and its components (population abundance, species distribution and richness, and community and trophic structure)? In turn, how do variations in biodiversity feed back to influence these same human values, perceptions, and actions? Urbanization profoundly alters the composition, abundance, and distribution of non-human species. Habitat alteration, climate modification, shifting nutrient and water availability, and introduction of nonnative species often result in a complete restructuring of biotic communities. Our research will:

    • Address mechanisms (e.g., competition, physiological stress) that contribute to species loss and dominance;
    • Investigate the efficacy of efforts to conserve and restore 'natural' habitats within the urban environment;
    • Develop an urban food web as a new synthesis of our biotic monitoring program.

    Research questions to be addressed:

    • What mechanisms explain species loss and dominance, and ultimately, biodiversity in the urban environment?
    • Can conservation and restoration of ‘natural’ habitats within the urban environment restore ‘natural’ communities of herpetofauna?
    • How do human activities, behaviors, and values modify diversity, and what are the links between specific attributes of biodiversity and outcomes and behaviors?

    Foundational Research Areas

    Land Use, Land Cover, and Land Architecture:

    A suite of remote-sensing activities producing land-use and land-cover products for CAP research at fine, medium, and coarse scales and enabling parcel-level, metropolitan-scale, and megapolitan-scale analyses.

    North Desert Village Experimental Suburb:

    A research platform for investigations of the impact of residential landscaping types on microclimate, primary productivity, arthropod biodiversity, and human ecological values and perceptions.

    Survey 200:

    A field-based monitoring component investigating ecosystem change over time, repeated every five years at over 200 locations spread across the urbanized Phoenix metropolitan region and surrounding desert.

    Phoenix Area Social Survey (PASS):

    A social survey conducted every five years to households in 40 neighborhoods co-located with Survey 200 to investigate human perceptions, values, and behaviors concerning the environmental domains of CAP LTER.

    Economic and Census Data Mining:

    A set of activities to mine existing social, economic, and spatial data sets for data that are fundamental for understanding linkages between human and biophysical systems.

    Synthesis Activities

    Synthesis of 12 Years of CAP LTER Research:

    This activity synthesizes research results from the first 12 years of CAP research, focusing on the central research question, How do the patterns and processes of urbanization alter the ecological conditions of the city and its surrounding environment, and how do ecological consequences of these developments feed back to the social system to generate future changes? Answering this question allows the project to critically examine: the overall state of our knowledge; the accomplishments and societal as well as scientific usefulness of this knowledge; and any needed adjustments to future CAP research.

    Sustainable Futures for Central Arizona:

    Building on our 12-year synthesis, we are developing future scenarios for the central Arizona socio-ecological system that address the critical question, How do biophysical drivers (e.g. climate change) and societal drivers (e.g. the pattern of land-use change or land architecture) influence the interaction and feedbacks between ecosystems and society as mediated through ecosystem services, and thereby influence the future of the urban socio-ecological system?

    Our work involves engaging in two sets of scenario activities. One focuses on sustainable land architecture and assesses the vulnerability, resilience, and sustainability of metropolitan Phoenix under current and potential climate drivers. This incorporates quantitative assessments of tradeoffs between ecosystem services and human outcomes as well as a consideration of the effect of land architecture on these tradeoffs. The second set of activities, integrated participatory scenarios, builds upon the sustainable land architecture scenarios, the 12-year synthesis and new data and models from CAP research and focuses on socio-ecological futures for metropolitan Phoenix. All scenario activities involve use of Arizona State University’s Decision Theater as a tool for visualizing scenarios and for creating decision-friendly versions of the models that can be used with policymakers, planners, and community development practitioners.


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