Advisory Group Spotlights

Chelsea Nagy

By Kayla Zacharias

Chelsea Nagy is a terrestrial ecologist, Program Manager and Research Scientist at Earth Lab, and CO LSEN advisory group member. 

Although she doesn’t work directly with policy, Chelsea Nagy is doing the kind of applicable research decision makers in Colorado should be considering. She started her research career in tropical forest nutrient cycling, but since she came to Colorado, she’s been studying more local issues, such as ecological response to wildfire.

One of her recent studies looked at cheatgrass, an annual plant native to Eurasia, which is invasive and now found in 49 states – including Colorado. Because it thrives in disturbed areas, it has an advantage over native species and has become a dominant species in the Intermountain West. Nagy’s study questioned the relationship between cheatgrass and wildfire, and how the combination of the two impact carbon storage – and the results are grim. In areas dominated by cheatgrass, there was a significant decline in carbon storage. 

“In places where the cheatgrass is dominant and it has completely excluded sagebrush [the native species] from the system, you see big declines in biomass carbon storage,” said Nagy. “This can also lead to declines in carbon storage deeper in the soils, because if you think about a big shrub like sagebrush being replaced by a little grass like cheatgrass, there is less biomass there, especially deeper down; the cheatgrass roots aren’t very deep. There’s also the fire component, so in areas where it’s burning a lot, you can see a lot of carbon storage loss.”

Although the results look bleak through the lens of climate change, they also provide useful information for research managers. Management practices such as targeted grazing, cheatgrass removal, and restoration of native species can improve the resilience of native vegetation, improve carbon storage and reduce the risk of wildfires. This study is only one example of how Nagy’s work has created solid scientific data that can be used by local decision makers. 

Nagy’s research is unique because although there are plenty of studies done on climate change and invasive species separately, there hasn’t been a ton of work done on the intersection of the two issues. Many invasive species are capable of moving into higher latitudes and altitudes as the climate warms, often outcompeting native species. Thus, invasive species are likely to become an even more pressing issue as climate change intensifies. Nagy is currently spearheading the creation of the North Central Regional Invasive Species and Climate Change (NC RISCC) network, which will focus precisely on this issue. 

At Earth Lab, where Nagy is a Program Director and Research Scientist, questions of global environmental change are the main focus. Earth Lab’s strength is in bringing new data and analytics into their research questions, and they also do a lot of work in education; they offer a professional graduate certificate in Earth Data Analytics, and they provide full courses and individual training modules on specific topics online, where they now receive over 200,000 unique users per month. 

Now more than ever, understanding global environmental change is critical. By training the next generation of researchers and exploring the intersection of unique but relevant fields of science, Earth Lab is paving the way for essential scientific breakthroughs. And by producing results that are applicable and usable, Nagy and other Earth Lab researchers are creating reliable studies and information for the state’s decision makers. 

Thank you, to Chelsea Nagy, for her research contributions and for serving on CO LSEN’s advisory group!