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.

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.

Description of the following video:

[Video: An animated slide with red text appears on a white background.]

[Video: An animated, spinning globe appears.]

[Words appear: My research field is ecohydrology.]

[Words appear at the top of the screen: Interaction between]

[Video: An animated, moving plant appears on the left side of the screen. The words "vegetation dynamics" appear under it.]

[Video: An animated, rolling wave of water appears on the right side of the screen. The words "and water cycles" appear under it]

[Video: An animated, growing plant appears on the left side of the screen A spinning globe appears on the right side of the screen.]

Lixin Wang, an associate professor in the Department of Earth Sciences, speaks in voiceover: My research field is ecohydrology. Basically, we are looking at interaction between vegetation dynamics and the water cycle, ranging from individual plant scale to global scale. We all know plants need water to grow, to survive, but also, plants can regulate the water balance and heat balance on the Earth's surface.

[Video: Wang appears on camera.]

[Words appear: Lixin Wang, associate professor in the Department of Earth Sciences]

Wang speaks: For example, if you cut down all the trees on earth, we would be 10 to 25 degrees Celsius warmer than what we have now. That would be a disaster, but that points out how important plants play a role in terms of water dynamic and ...

[Video: Wang is working in a laboratory. He is using a computer. A close-up of the computer screen is shown.]

Wang speaks in voiceover: ... heat balance. So that's basically why we want to study things ... we want to study the interaction between water and vegetation. For me, in that type of system, water research is more important, because that is a system, water is more limiting. If you ...

[Video: Red words appear on an animated white slide: Dryland information can be translated to other systems in drought-like conditions. Dead trees appear on the left side of the screen. Trees filled with leaves appear on the right side of the screen. An arrow is between the two sets of trees, pointing right to the green trees.]

[Video: An animated cloud with raindrops falling from it appears in the middle of the screen.]

[Words appear: Rainfall is a major water input for the ecosystem.]

Wang speaks in voiceover: ... understand how dryland works, that will have very useful information to translate that to some other system that's not dryland but that could be under drought condition periodically. Because we know for most of the system, rainfall is a major water input for the system.

[Video: Wang appears on camera.]

Wang speaks: Basically, that's the only water resources in a lot of systems. So, if we tried to understand how that system will be responding to future environmental change, we have to understand how the water will be changing.

[Words appear on the left side of the screen: We must understand where water comes from.]

[Video: An animated faucet with water falling from its spout appears on the right side of the screen.]

[Words appear: Rainfall has two components.]

[Video: An animated cloud with raindrops falling from it appears in the middle of the screen.]

[Words appear: Rain can come from outside the ecosystem. Rain can also come from inside the ecosystem.]

[Video: An animated house with rain falling on the roof appears on the left side of the screen. An animated showerhead with water falling from its spout appears on the right side of the screen.]

[Video: Three animated clouds with raindrops falling from them appear on the top half of the screen, with an animated, moving ocean below them.]

Wang speaks in voiceover: So, by doing that you have to understand where the water comes from. Rainfall typically has two components. One is the one from outside your system, but the other part is the rainfall could come from inside the bogs, inside the system you are studying. So, we're basically looking at how much the moisture in global dryland is actually generated within the system.

[Screen goes to black]

[IU trident appears]

[Words appear: IUPUI]

[Words appear: Fulfilling the promise]

[Words appear: iupui.edu]

[END OF TRANSCRIPT]

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."

Lixin Wang in an African desertView print quality image
Lixin Wang conducts research in the desert in Africa.

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."

Read part 1 of the series Read part 2 of the series