Dr. Barrows, an environmental scientist with three decades of field work experience, led an Earthwatch Expedition in the 1980s doing research in northern California’s redwood and Douglas fir forests. Today, he’s taking teams into the deserts of Joshua Tree National Park.
What interests you about deserts?
Deserts defy logic. In this place where daytime temperatures exceed lethal levels every summer day and where rain is so rare it is a cause for celebration whenever it falls, life shouldn’t exist. But it does, and with a diversity and abundance that often exceeds any reasonable predictions. Because of the severe climate of deserts, we often assume animals and plants living there are at or near a physiological limit. If that’s true, what will happen to them in the anticipated increased temperatures and reduced rainfall coming with climate change? We can model their responses—and for many species, that future doesn’t look good—but I wonder if desert life will surprise us.
The only way to know is to get outside and count plants and animals. It’s an old-fashioned approach but it works. Teasing apart the factors responsible for the diversity and abundance of life in deserts is like doing a jigsaw puzzle with thousands of pieces; each time I find pieces that fit, it is incredibly satisfying.
Great moments in the field:
Every day I can spend in the field is the best day ever. Every time I learn something new, see something from a different perspective that gives me new insights and a clearer picture of how these natural systems work. I can return to the same place over and over and still find something new each time.