Sample SKOPE Questions

SKOPE Stories: Examples of Questions SKOPE Should Be Able to Address

An initial project effort was to determine what environmental variables, units of temporal and spatial resolution, and forms of desirable output should be prioritized for inclusion in SKOPE. SKOPE Project Team members organized two needs assessment workshops to elicit this information. We asked researchers with a demonstrated interest in historical processes and their relationships to changing environmental conditions to suggest research problems of particular interest. Researchers in both academic and applied professional positions participated in these user-community workshops. Among the professionals who attended were archaeologists, historians, geographers, hydrologists, and ecologists. What follows here is a sample of suggested research questions that would benefit from SKOPE Project undertakings.

Case #1—Historical Research: “Possible Environmental Push and Pull Factors, 1610–1680”

Richard Flint is a historian and widely acknowledged expert on the Vázquez de Coronado Expedition (A.D. 1539–1542) and the Entrada and Spanish Colonial periods (A.D. 1539–1820) in the U.S.Southwest. Currently, he is examining the rapid movement between A.D. 1610 and A.D. 1680 of Spanish settlers in the Spanish Province of New Mexico from the Río Arriba (early settlement of San Gabriel de Yunque near Española) to the Río Abajo (Middle Rio Grande River Valley near Albuquerque). This migration resulted in encroachment on Pueblo Indian land and usurpation of irrigation water for agriculture. By A.D.1680, the majority of Spanish colonists lived south of the La Bajada escarpment (at the southern edge of the Santa Fe Plateau) in the ancestral territories of the southern Tiwa-speaking and Keres-speaking Pueblo peoples near Albuquerque, with the balance mostly in the greater Santa Fe area. By the same date, indigenous and long-established pueblo villages had been reduced from 21 to 4; Pueblo population numbers diminished by more than 85% by disease, hunger, exacted tribute, and enforced labor; and the open practice of traditional Pueblo religion severely curtailed by Franciscan clergy.

Dr. Flint wishes to gauge the importance of environmental factors in driving historically documented migration. To do this he would assess the environmental differences between these two regions with regard to agricultural potential and sustainable population size. His goal is to evaluate the relative impact of the demographic increase among Hispanics and regional environmental differences in the southward shift of the Hispanic population between A.D. 1610 (the establishment of provincial capital of Santa Fe) and A.D. 1680 (the year of Pueblo Revolt and the initiation of the Pueblo-Spanish War of 1680–1696).

Dr. Flint would like the following information: precipitation and/or streamflow data for spatially relevant locations (Rio Grande in the Española and Albuquerque Basins, Chama River near Española, Santa Fe River above Cieneguilla) at the annual or seasonal/monthly scales of resolution. These data could be provided as tabular data or as a series of annual/decadal maps. He will use these data to assess the relative success or failure of irrigation agricultural endeavors in these two regions.

Case #2—Archaeological Research: “Late Prehistoric–Early Historic Use of the Jemez Mountains”

John Roney is an archaeologist well-known for his research in New Mexico, U.S.A, and Chihuahua, Mexico. Two of his long-standing interests are the antiquity of agriculture in the U.S. Southwest and the sustainability of agricultural adaptions in challenging settings. A geographic area that presently interests him is the Jemez Mountains of north-central New Mexico, west of Santa Fe. The central feature of the Jemez Mountains is the 24-km (15-mi) diameter Valles Caldera, one of the largest collapsed volcanic craters on Earth. This high mountain, mesa, and canyon landscape supported thousands of Pueblo people from about a.d. 1500 to A.D. 1700, who lived in many substantial villages—some with 1000 to 1850 rooms—positioned on high mesas at elevations between 1829 and 2438 m (6000 and 8000 ft) elevation. Thousands of smaller sites, including agricultural field houses and many agricultural features (terraces, check dams, grid gardens, and rock alignments), occurred on mesa tops as high as 2560 m (8400 ft) elevation. This large number of densely populated settlements occurring at high elevations far from permanent water is unusual in the American Southwest.

Mr. Roney wants to understand the environmental conditions that supported this rare high-elevation Southwestern agricultural adaptation. His working hypothesis is that the maize growing season must have been warmer and longer in the 15th and 16th centuries than it is today. To test this hypothesis, he needs annual or decadal temperature data for the growing season at higher elevations (2134–2560 m or 7000–8400 ft) and annual or decadal precipitation data for lower elevations (1524–2134 m or 5000–7000 ft) for these two centuries. His geographic window will take in the Jemez Plateau, which compasses some 2500 sq km (965 sq mi). Ideally, Mr. Roney would like to have these data depicted in an animated time series (maps) that show the reconstructed temperature and precipitation values through time. If these paleoenvironmental data do indicate unusual warmth at high elevations and relative drought at low elevations, his hypothesis will be supported and he will be in a good position to suggest important determinants of settlement and aggregation for the region.

Case #3—Ecological Research: “Improved Management the El Malpais NCA, near Grants, NM”

Cynthia Herhahn is the Cultural Resource Program Lead for the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Rio Puerco Field Office. She and her ecologist colleagues are responsible for protecting and managing the El Malpais National Conservation Area (NCA), which includes two designated wildernesses and several wilderness studies areas. At this unit, the BLM is concerned with (1) rangeland health (sustainable grazing practices and wildlife habitat), (2) disruption of natural forest fire regimes and overstocked woodlands, (3) habitat restoration along the NCA’s major drainage, Cebolla Creek, and (4) erosion control to protect susceptible archaeological sites.

To address these contemporary land-management challenges, Dr. Herhahn and her colleagues need environmental information that will allow them to understand both long-term and historical processes responsible for the current physical landscape. Stream channel downcutting, removal of pinyon-juniper and Ponderosa pine woodlands through timber harvesting and forest fires, overgrazing by domestic livestock, the construction and failure of water- and soil-conservation features, and historic land clearance by early twentieth-century homesteaders are known processes. To ameliorate drainage and surface sediment erosion, improve rangelands, and restore woodland fire regimes, BLM managers would like to have long records of precipitation, temperature, vegetation communities, surface hydrology, and fire history. Ideally, they would like to have “snapshots” (maps) from a.d. 1200 to the present, but they would be grateful to have annual or decadal-scale maps for the last 150 years (ca. A.D. 1860 to the present). Sources of relevant information would include tree-ring studies of precipitation, temperature, and fire frequency; packrat midden information on past vegetation; speleothem data on past climate; geomorphological data on stream channel history; and inventories of plant and animal use developed from local archaeological sites. These data would be augmented with archival research and oral interviews concerning these same environmental parameters.

Case #4—Explaining Changes in the Rate of Shrub Encroachment 

Scott Collins is an ecologist at the University of New Mexico. His research focuses on the ecological impacts of climate change, with a particular emphasis on the role of within-season precipitation amount and variability, and interannual drought on driving shrub encroachment in southern New Mexico and the Southwestern US. Most of his current research occurs at the northern range boundary of creosotebush as it gradually invades native C4 dominated grassland.

It is generally hypothesized that shrub encroachment is a widespread phenomenon across this region starting around 150 years ago at the start of the industrial revolution. Other important drivers of enchroachment include grazing by domestic livestock, increasing winter low temperatures and elevated atmospheric CO2 levels. It is unclear if the current northern range boundary is constrained climatically or if encroachment is slowing because of changes in land management practices such as much lower stocking rates of domestic livestock. To assess the role of rainfall event size and frequency on the rate and pattern of shrub encroachment requires daily precipitation values and nighttime daily low temperatures extending back to around 1800 prior to the rapid increase of shrub encroachment in this region.


Environmental Variables and Units of Temporal Resolution. Researchers uniformly desire data on past climate to aid their understanding of past events and processes. In the typically arid North American Southwest, the most requested climate data relates to long records of precipitation—annual, seasonal, and even monthly. Temperature data are also desirable because they inform on the length of the growing season for agricultural crops and native vegetation. In combination, droughts or cool periods of various magnitude and duration can be characterized as warm droughts, cool droughts, warm and wet periods, and cool and wet periods. When these conditions are unusually long or extreme, they present special challenges for living things and their physical environments. Temporal changes in the distribution of biotic communities, predictable water, and soil moisture, were also frequently requested datasets. Depending on research interest, the time depth of analysis ranged from several millennia B.C. to historic and recent times.

Units of Spatial Resolution. No consensus emerged for spatial resolution; scale depended entirely on the problem addressed. Most individuals suggested research projects encompassing large areas or regions (e.g., mountains, river valleys, canyons, range units, and even portions of States).

Forms of Desirable Output. The most frequently requested output was graphic imagery taking the form of maps of a given study area, with associated numerical data that can be examined in a table (e.g., a database or spreadsheet). The desire to view and manipulate an animated time series—especially annual maps—was often cited as ideal.

You can suggest a question for SKOPE below.