Climate change makes grass greener — at first

In this file photo, NAU professor Bruce Hungate stands in the middle of one of the components of a climate change monitoring project that he has been working on for 10 years. (Josh Biggs/Arizona Daily Sun)

Bruce Hungate reaches down and plucks a bit of tumbleweed from a small, PVC pipe planter buried among the grasslands north of the San Francisco Peaks.

A fierce wind sways the surrounding landscape of long, tanned grass stalks in unison and clanks the metal flaps of a wind gauge, heralding the oncoming spring snowstorm.

The cylinder is just one of dozens in a research plot he has monitored for the last decade. Hungate and his colleagues have four other similar plots positioned across the life zones of the greater Flagstaff region — from the Painted Desert to the upper reaches of the San Francisco Peaks.

The experiments have shown surprising results after the first decade of the plants living in a warmer climate.

The increased temperatures were actually a blessing in the first year — the strong drought of 2002 — and the plants thrived in the newfound warmth. That trend quickly reversed, though, and the plants were less productive in each of the subsequent nine years.