You may not realize it, but the wetlands found at Laguna Atascosa Wildlife Refuge are inherently important to the climate and biodiversity of the Rio Grande Valley.
“They protect us from storms, they reduce erosion, they provide us with food by sustaining our fisheries,” says Dr. Christopher Gabler, a biology professor and researcher at UTRGV.
Gabler and his team of graduate students at UTRGV are studying these wetlands and how a changing climate impacts not only the wildlife, but the rainfall seen valleywide.
“What we’re doing is investigating how plant communities here are going to change, based on whether they get more or less rainfall, which we expect might be happening soon because of global climate patterns.”
The project models rainfall at three locations along the entire coastal bend. One location receives more rain than normal, another receives less rain than normal and the third receives the normal amount.
“We’re at that tipping point where we can investigate the transition from plants to no plants, which is going to be so important for the potential changes that might happen in this part of the world.
“This is one of the areas where we’re seeing some of the most rapid change and some of the most direct human impacts.”
Out of the three possibilities Dr. Gabler is testing, one is more likely. It fits perfectly in line with the concerns of climate change.
“Drier definitely seems more likely. Even if we get a little more rainfall, we are running into several other factors that are taking away freshwater availability.”
A drier Rio Grande Valley may leave more places looking like a desert than the lush greens of the coastal wetlands.
“We’re at the bottom end of how much rain you need for plants to grow in abundance. So unlike other parts of the Texas coast, South Texas is unique in that if we get a little bit drier, we could actually start to lose plants altogether.”
It’s not just a problem ecologically, but also economically. Many Valley jobs that depend on access to water and wildlife could dry up too.
“If you are a fisherman, or a birdwatcher, or someone who’s employed in an industry that’s catered to ecotourism, or if you live near the coast and are worried about erosion, or if you just like to eat seafood that’s wild caught in the Gulf of Mexico…you’re directly impacted by coastal wetland health.”
“With plant communities changing, you’re gonna have a change in habitat for fish and shrimp, which is a huge industry down here,” adds Ivy Hinson, a graduate student working with Dr. Gabler.
“A subtle change in temperature, a subtle change in water availability can lead to some pretty drastic changes,” said Andrew Corter, a biology graduate student.
“Depending on how those scenarios play out, this is kind of a way of looking into the future and determining how the environment here in the Rio Grande Valley will change as a result of climate change,” said August Plamann, another student working with Dr. Gabler.
In the end, the climate is changing all around us and it’s impacting the ecosystem of the Rio Grande Valley.