2002 Annual

Thursday, 17 January 2002: 11:44 AM
Climate conditions favoring the maintenance of the central U.S. tall grass prairie
Kenneth E. Kunkel, ISWS, Champaign, IL; and S. A. Changnon
It is important to understand the role that climate plays in the establishment and maintenance of ecosystems in order to most effectively manage those systems. This is particularly important as the anthropogenic stresses, including anthropogenically-induced climate change, on those systems increase. This study assessed the distribution of climate conditions that has established and maintained the tall grass prairie in the central United States. The area is a large, triangular-shaped area with its corner points near Tulsa, Fargo, and Indianapolis. The prairie was once covered by tall grasses ranging from 0.5 to 2 meters tall with isolated tree stands mainly along the major rivers. The prairie existed from about 8,000 years ago (eastern portions) to 10,000 years ago (western portions) until European settlers in the 19th Century converted most of it into cropland, becoming today’s Corn Belt.

Ecologists have long considered the prairie to be a unique grassland. The area had a humid temperate climate favorable for the growth of deciduous forests. Elsewhere in the world, areas with similar climates are forested, and grasslands normally develop in more arid regions.

An analysis of various factors led to the following conclusions about the key climatic conditions favoring the prairie. The northern boundary is established by high thunderstorm and frequent severe drought conditions to the south of the boundary and low thunderstorm and less frequent severe drought conditions to the north of the northern boundary. As a result, lightning-induced fires are favored to the south of the boundary. The southern boundary is established by the frequency of cold seasons (November-March) with less than 38 cm of precipitation with a high frequency to the north and low frequency to the south of the southern boundary. The western boundary is established by the frequency of warm seasons (May-October) with a precipitation to potential evapotranspiration ratio of greater than 0.75 with a high frequency to the east and a low frequency to the west of the western boundary.

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