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International research: Using moisture recycling to understand environmental changes in drylands

This is the fourth part in a five-part series highlighting the work of the President's International Research Award recipients.

By: Rich Schneider

INDIANAPOLIS - An IUPUI ecohydrology researcher is seeking answers to questions about interactions between soil, water and vegetation in arid ecosystems to advance understanding of how these systems will respond to environmental changes.

Video by Samantha Thompson, Indiana University

"We all know that plants need water to survive and grow, but plants can also regulate the water balance and heat balance on the surface of the Earth, said Lixin Wang, an associate professor in the Department of Earth Sciences at IUPUI.

"If you cut down all the trees on Earth, we would be 10 to 25 degrees Celsius warmer than we are now, which would be a disaster," Wang said. "It won't happen, but that points out how important the role plants play is in terms of water dynamics and heat balance. So that's why we want to study these interactions."

Wang said he was drawn to studying dryland ecosystems because even small changes introduce a huge impact on such ecosystems.


Rainfall is a major water input for dryland systems, he said: "To understand how a dryland system will respond to future environmental change, we have to understand where all the rainfall comes from. Rainfall typically has two components. One comes from outside the ecosystem, and the other component is moisture generated or recycled from within the dryland system.

"So basically, we are looking at how much moisture is generated within a dryland ecosystem."

Given its arid and semiarid characteristics, Wang chose to study the large Heihe River Basin ecosystem in northwest China, an arid to semiarid area of mountains, agriculture, riparian forest and desert. The diverse habitats within the Heihe River Basin provide a unique environment to answer the moisture-recycling question under different environmental conditions.

"You need unique locations that are suitable for your research questions," Wang said. "You have to look for different places across the globe to be able to answer your questions."

The Indiana University President's International Research Award that Wang received last year facilitated the choice of the Heihe River Basin as the location for the research project. The award was created to support high-impact international collaborative research projects that engage one or more of IU's Global Gateway Offices and the communities they serve. The Global Gateway Network includes offices in Beijing, Berlin, New Delhi and Mexico City.

"For any international research, it is always good to have a base outside of your home institution," Wang said. For him, the IU Gateway in Beijing is "a home away from home."

The gateway office provided instrumental assistance for Wang to host an international workshop to discuss research collaboration between IU and universities in China, he said. "Collaboration, in general, is very helpful for any research. It is particularly helpful in this case because the research work is done in China. It's good to have a local collaborator."

Wang is collaborating with professor Liangju Zhao, who has been conducting research in China for many years. "She has a lot of baseline data," he said. "This will help us be successful in answering the questions posed by this research project."

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