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The Nebraska Sand Hills form the largest sand dune area in the Western Hemisphere (58,000 km2). Beneath the Sand Hills lies over 35% of the groundwater stored in the High Plains aquifer. Today, the Sand Hills are stable and covered by native grassland interspersed with wetlands and lakes. The starting point for the SandHills Biocomplexity Project was the recent observation by UNL geoscientists that many of these dunes were destabilized (lost their grass cover) and active as recently as 900 years ago. How do short- and long-term climate change interact with ecological, hydrological and bioatmospheric processes to destabilize this massive sand due system, or, on the other hand, restabilize large areas of moving sand? What role do the numerous interdunal wetlands and lakes of the region play in stabilizing this system?

The project has three main components:

1. Geological and paleoecological studies are reconstructing Sand Hills climate and dynamics during the late Holocene;
2. A large-scale manipulative experiment is examining the effects of grassland destabilization on the coupled budgets of energy and water that drive both ground-water recharge and canopy-atmosphere interactions; and
3. Modeling of the coupled climate – vegetation – hydrologic system is testing whether the processes and feedbacks that we hypothesized govern the stability of the Sand Hills can account for patterns observed in both the geologic and satellite-based record.