Terrestrial ecology research supported by the Environmental System Science (ESS) program seeks to improve the representation of terrestrial ecosystem processes in Earth system models, thereby enhancing the robustness of model projections and providing the scientific foundation for solutions to the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) most pressing energy and environmental challenges. Terrestrial ecology research focuses on understanding ecosystem responses to warming temperatures, increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration, changes in nutrient cycling, and altered precipitation timing and amount. Such understanding is essential to improving predictions of both the ecological effects of climate change and feedbacks between the terrestrial ecosystem and the rest of the Earth system.
Priority Research Objectives
Through hypothesis-driven observations, experimental manipulations, and large-scale, long-term field studies, ESS supports foundational terrestrial ecology research, including studies in critical and potentially sensitive ecosystems. The program’s goals are to understand and explain mechanisms and processes controlling primary production and carbon cycling, biogeochemistry, and the impacts of disturbance on terrestrial ecosystems.
Terrestrial ecology research focuses on ecosystems and ecological processes that are globally or regionally significant, expected to be sensitive to climate change, and are insufficiently understood or inadequately represented in models. As part of the Biological and Environmental Research (BER) Program, ESS coordinates with BER’s Earth and Environmental Systems Modeling program (and research from other federal agencies), ensuring that experimental and observational results are incorporated into Earth system models to enhance climate projections and inform DOE’s energy decisions. ESS is a leader among U.S. and international agencies in the design, construction, and operation of pioneering, long-term, large-scale field experiments that are critical to understanding ecosystem responses to a changing climate.
Current and future ESS investments in terrestrial ecology research include BER’s innovative concept for coupling models with experimental and observational campaigns such as the Next-Generation Ecosystem Experiments (NGEE) projects in the Arctic and tropics. ESS supports additional investments in large-scale ecosystem manipulations in the Spruce and Peatland Responses Under Changing Environments (SPRUCE) project being conducted in northern Minnesota.
Why Terrestrial Ecology Research Is Important
A significant fraction of the CO2 released to the atmosphere during energy production is taken up by terrestrial ecosystems. This “sink” for anthropogenic carbon represents an important buffer for offsetting the greenhouse gas effects of CO2 emissions. However, greater insight is needed into the details of these processes, the role of climate variability and change on that uptake, and effects of related processes such as nutrient, water, and energy cycling. Uncertainties about how terrestrial ecosystems will function in a changing climate hamper efforts to quantify and project long-term impacts and stability of carbon in the biosphere. Understanding ecosystem functions is essential for improving the ability to predictively model terrestrial ecosystems and their feedbacks to the Earth system. Terrestrial ecology research supported by ESS navigates the forefront of interactions between terrestrial ecosystems and a changing climate, with the ultimate goal of capturing the state of the science in coupled Earth system models.