Research Projects

The Ecosystems Center was founded in 1975 as a year-round research center of the MBL. Its mission is to investigate the structure and functioning of ecological systems, predict their response to changing environmental conditions, apply the resulting knowledge to the preservation and management of natural resources and educate both future scientists and concerned citizens.

Because the complex nature of modern ecosystems research requires a multidisciplinary and collaborative approach, Ecosystems Center scientists work together on projects bringing expertise from a wide range of disciplines to bear on a variety of questions. Center scientists are currently conducting more than 50 research projects all over the world, many in collaboration with colleagues at other institutions.

Click the links below to learn more, or search our full list of projects.


Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER)

The National Science Foundation established the Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) Network in 1980 to support research on long-term ecological phenomena in the United States. There are 26 LTER sites that represent diverse ecosystems and research emphases. Two LTER projects are based at the Ecosystems Center: Arctic and Plum Island. In addition, researchers at the center are actively involved in research at the Harvard Forest LTER.

The long-term goal of Arctic LTER project is to understand and predict the effects of environmental change on arctic landscapes. To achieve this goal the Arctic LTER studies the ecology of the surrounding tundra, streams, and lakes. We hope to gain an understanding of the controls of ecosystem structure and function through long-term monitoring and surveys of natural variation of ecosystem characteristics, through experimental manipulation of ecosystems for years to decades and through synthesis of results and predictive modeling at ecosystem and watershed scales.
The Plum Island Ecosystems LTER (PIE LTER), located in northeastern Massachusetts, is an integrated research, education and outreach program with the goal of developing a predictive understanding of the long-term response of watershed and estuarine ecosystems to changes in climate, land use and sea level and to apply this knowledge to the wise management and development of policy to protect the natural resources of coastal zones.
Increases in soil temperatures associated with global warming have the potential to accelerate soil organic matter decay and alter nutrient cycling patterns in forested ecosystems. By increasing soil temperatures we can explore the effects of global warming in our forests, we can examine ecosystem responses to warming and the resulting feedbacks to the climate system. At the Harvard Forest LTER site we have established soil warming studies in a range of forest types and soil conditions on various spatial and temporal scales examining the implications of global warming on different ecosystem processes.

Other Research Projects

The most extensive and rapid conversion of natural ecosystems into crop and pastureland today is taking place in the tropics. Clearing of rain forest for cattle pasture is currently the most common form of land-use change on earth. Recently we have focused on how the clearing of forest for pasture changes the chemistry and ecology of small streams in the Brazilian Amazon. Small streams are of interest because they are the corridors that connect terrestrial ecosystems with larger rivers.
Since 1978, the Oceanic Flux Program (OFP), funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), has continuously measured particle fluxes in the deep Sargasso Sea. The OFP is the longest running time-series of its kind, and has produced a unique record of temporal variability in the “biological pump,” a term applied here to material transfer from the surface to the deep ocean resulting from the interplay between physical, biological and chemical processes.
Our Terrestrial Isotope Biogeochemistry research group has developed a compound specific biomarker technique utilizing ablated leaf wax particles in aerosols to directly measure terrestrial photosynthetic discrimination on large spatial scales.
The Arctic Great Rivers Observatory (Arctic-GRO) project measures the flux of water-borne constituents in the six Great Arctic Rivers: the Ob', Yenisey, Lena, Kolyma rivers in Siberia , and the Yukon and Mackenzie rivers in North America. Together, these rivers deliver the majority of the continental fresh water to the Arctic Ocean, the most landlocked and freshwater dominated of all the Earth's oceans. As a component of the Arctic Observing Network (AON), Arctic-GRO is providing critical observations needed to understand the changing Arctic.
The TIDE project is a National Science Foundation Integrated Research Challenges in Environmental Biology (IRC-EB) funded study investigating the long-term fate of coastal marshes in the Plum Island watershed of Northern Massachusetts. Specifically this project will look at the interactive effects of nutrient enrichment and the removal of top level consumers in several small tidal creeks of the Rowley river.
The MBL Research Greenhouse is located at the Falmouth Technology Park and is a 400 square foot facility built in 2009. The Conviron Aurora greenhouse controls programmable temperature within two degrees horizontally in the room at all times and features programmable lights, watering programs, shades, and an ARGUS server control system that can be contacted from the MBL campus by computer.
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