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University of San Diego students study drought's impact on desert ecosystem

Trip to Anza-Borrego desert focuses on insects
USD Drought Study Lab.png
Posted at 6:18 AM, Jun 15, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-15 10:43:52-04

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - Six students from the University of San Diego spent a week in the Anza-Borrego desert, looking at how climate change impacts aquatic insects and their ecosystem.

"It's awesome," says USD senior Janelle Doi. "Being out in the desert really kind of makes our experience."

Braving triple-digit temperatures, the students collected samples of insects and brought them back to their lab on campus. They're now identifying and cataloging the insects, to compare them to samples from previous trips.

"I think 2019 was a really wet year for us," says Doi. "So there was a lot of water, there was a lot of flooding, and we can compare what we see now to that."

Those comparisons will help the team learn how a prolonged drought is impacting the region.

"When the droughts are becoming this much more severe, we are not sure if those same aquatic invertebrates are able to survive the new conditions that we're expecting in the future," says Dr. Kate Boersma, the USD associate professor who led the trip.

She takes students on trips to the desert several times per year, dating back to 2015. Having a 7-year library of samples allows the students to see how the region changes over time.

"Some folks think that our desert aquatic insects are going to be more able to survive climate change," Dr. Boersma says, "because they are already able to withstand these extreme conditions in the environment."

It also helps them learn how climate change could impact San Diego. While not as extreme as the Anza-Borrego region, San Diego is part of the desert climate. Dr. Boersma says what the students see on the trip is a good indicator of what could happen closer to the coast as the drought continues.

"When we're studying these regions in the desert that are more extreme, more water stressed, it's a window into the future," she says, adding that our water consumption also has an impact on the desert's condition.

"It's really easy for us to become detached from those aquatic communities in the desert in our daily life as we turn on a faucet and it fills our water bottle with no problem. We need to recognize that that water is coming from outside of San Diego County. Conservation is fundamentally important to preserve our ecosystems here in place."

In addition to the research, it's a great way to get students to become passionate about science and climate change.

"It's why I do what I do," says Dr. Boersma. "And that's when they light up. This time in the field is when we see the spark, when we see them fall in love with the organisms, when they go from not putting their hands in the water at the beginning of the week to holding up the damselfly in their fingers by Friday. That's really inspiring for me."

For Doi, who has been on a few of these trips in her 3 years on campus, it's an invaluable experience.

"I just love looking at the invertebrates. They're they're so cute, and I really enjoy seeing them," she says.