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Even with surface vegetation killed, the stressed grasslands proved far more resilient than Wedin imagined, retaining their root systems, sand and organic matter for years.He’s now trying to revegetate the plots, which he said has been even harder:“It’s a situation where the professors come out and learn something that everybody that lives out here already knew: that it’s easier to destroy the stability out here in the Sandhills than it is to restore it once it’s lost,” Wedin said.Hanson said to think of each sand grain as an individual rechargeable battery.“The sand grains are exposed to sunlight, they lose their electrical charge.“And that was humbling.”Ultimately, Wedin and Hanson agree droughts capable of making the Sandhills resemble the Sahara are very long—probably on the order of decades or a couple hundred years.They’d have to be far more severe than what we’ve seen in the last two hundred years—but not in the last millennium.“If we know that in the last 1,000 years this landscape produced droughts that destabilized the whole landscape, it seems prudent to think that can do that again.Wedin said during the most recent mega-drought 800 years ago, “you would have been standing at this point and looking at the largest set of moving sand dunes in the western hemisphere.”UNL scientists have spent the last 15 years dating the Sandhills through a process called optically-stimulated luminescence, which measures the energy held in sand grains.UNL Professor Paul Hanson, a geologist with the Nebraska Geological Survey, uses this technique to study how and when the sand dunes last moved.

But we don’t even need to invoke human-caused climate change to say, it’s a reasonable prediction sometime in the next couple hundred years we’re going to see droughts out here that the whole thing falls apart,” Wedin said.Though surprised by the resilience of the grasslands, after the fourth and fifth winters, some of the patches did start to move, "and then it just went exponential on us.We went from an inch or two and before you knew it we were losing four to five inches on average, per month," Wedin said.By averaging the useful data from enough grains of sand, “you can use that as a clock to tell how long the grains have been buried,” said Hanson, and thus the last time the dune was bare and moving.The geologic history Paul Hanson constructs provides context for the ecological research Dave Wedin is doing—trying to understand what conditions are necessary to make a healthy grassland destabilize and fall apart, and how long it takes to recover.And the brutal lesson was: we weren’t going to restore this vegetation in a couple years," Wedin said.After four years of that effort, he's finally started to see the new plants take root, with the help of erosion mats and shredded hay.(Photo by Ariana Brocious, NET News/Platte Basin Timelapse)During the last 10,000 years, data point to four periods of “mega-drought”— one lasting nearly 3,000 years.That drought, possibly exacerbated by strong winds, wiped out vegetation across the Sandhills.“So we’re simulating a severe disturbance of some kind.”Wedin’s Grassland Destabilization Experiment has been going on for about a decade on university property in north-central Nebraska.Several test plots hold only patchy vegetation and lots of bare sand.


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