Introducing the Environmental System Science Program


The Environmental System Science (ESS) program advances an integrated, robust, and scale-aware predictive understanding of terrestrial systems and their interdependent biological, chemical, ecological, hydrological, and physical processes. ESS is part of the Earth and Environmental Systems Sciences Division within the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Biological and Environmental Research (BER). The ESS program is developing an integrated framework using a systems approach to unravel the complex processes and controls on the structure, function, feedbacks, and dynamics of terrestrial ecosystems, spanning from the bedrock through the rhizosphere and vegetation to the atmospheric surface layer. The scope encompasses watersheds and coastal zones, terrestrial-aquatic interfaces, and understudied ecosystems that represent a significant knowledge gap in local and regional process models and predictive Earth system models.

ESS Website in Transition

ESS merges two former BER programs, Subsurface Biogeochemical Research (SBR) and Terrestrial Ecosystem Science (TES). During the integration process, this new ESS website will remain under construction until the merger of the SBR and TES websites is complete.

Terrestrial Ecosystem Science

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Subsurface Biogeochemical Research

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Program Approach

To achieve a predictive understanding of terrestrial systems, ESS uses a coupled modeling-experimental (ModEx) approach for examining terrestrial system properties that exhibit large uncertainties in their functions, feedbacks, and dynamics and, consequently, are insufficiently captured in open-source or community models. The program aims to improve the representation of ecological and hydro-biogeochemical processes in coupled models, thereby increasing the sophistication of the projected interpretations from those models. Model predictions are also compared against observations or field experiments to identify critical uncertainties that can inform priorities for future observational and field research directions.

ESS is a recognized leader in undertaking and integrating research across disciplines (e.g., microbial, vegetative, geochemical, and hydrological), as well as applying state-of-the-art ecosystem manipulations to understand inherent and emergent properties of changes to Earth and environmental systems. Ultimately, the program uses the knowledge gained from these approaches to advance models that capture the function and dynamics of watershed and ecosystem processes.

Courtesy Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

Science Across Scales

ESS research employs lab- and field-based experiments and modeling to enhance the understanding of ecosystem and hydro-biogeochemical processes across an enormous range of spatial and temporal scales.

Courtesy SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Priority Research Areas

The ESS program supports a complementary and coordinated mix of university-led projects, next-generation ecosystem experiments (NGEE), and national laboratory-led science focus areas (SFAs) that represents short-term experiments, decadal projects, and longer-term studies. Research is conducted at an SFA field site in Rifle, Colorado (left), and an NGEE–Arctic site in Alaska (right).