History of the Ecosystems Center

MBL Ecosystems Center History and Accomplishments

The Ecosystems Center is founded by George Woodwell as a year-round research program. Its mission is to provide scientific information supporting the conservation and wise management of Earth’s terrestrial, coastal, and polar ecosystems.

John Hobbie publishes one of the most widely cited scientific papers in marine science: describing a new method for visualizing bacteria using the fluorescence microscope. This discovery catalyzed a scientific revolution in marine microbiology.

Bruce Peterson publishes a seminal hypothesis linking the export of carbon to the deep sea with the nitrogen metabolism of surface plankton – a key control on atmospheric CO2 levels.

John Hobbie and Hugh Ducklow 1981

John Hobbie, Ecosystems Center director from 1982-2006; David Kirchman; Hugh Ducklow, present Ecosystems Center director, and Richard Wright at a meeting in 1981.


• Center scientists led by George Woodwell publish a key paper analyzing the global contribution of deforestation to the rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide, the major cause of global warming. CO2 release from ecosystems through deforestation and land-use change outweighed fossil fuels as a source of CO2 before about 1960. After that time fossil-fuel burning overwhelmed other anthropogenic sources.

• John Hobbie succeeds Woodwell as Ecosystems Center director.

Bruce Peterson leads a group of center scientists and colleagues reporting results of long-term nutrient additions to an Arctic stream showing how phosphorus inputs change the fundamental metabolism of the stream ecosystem.

The Arctic research site established near Toolik Lake, Alaska by John Hobbie, Bruce Peterson, and Gus Shaver in 1975 is awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) Site designation. Ongoing studies documenting changing ecosystems at Toolik provide irrefutable evidence that the Arctic is an indicator for Earth’s response to global warming.

Jerry Melillo, Paul Steudler, and Knute Nadelhofer help establish a new LTER Site at Harvard Forest, to investigate soil warming in this model ecosystem and discover how climate change could affect the world’s forests. This work pioneers the use of large-scale (ecosystem-level) experimental manipulations as a fundamental tool of ecosystem research.

Ecosystems Center buildings 1989

Ecosystems Center in 1989

• Anne Giblin and Chuck Hopkinson start a long-term study of the effects of sewage disposal in Boston Harbor. The program involves SCUBA diving on the outfall sites to collect sediment cores and measure ecosystem metabolic rates. Results to date (2007) suggest a slow recovery in the harbor following diversion of the waste discharge to an offshore site under the auspices of the Massachusetts Water Research Authority. Conditions near the new disposal site in Massachusetts Bay remain constant.

• Jerry Melillo and John Aber publish Terrestrial Ecosystems, the first textbook on the ecology of whole ecosystems.

• Through the MBL Science Journalism Program, Ecosystems scientists educate science reporters on key questions in Polar research during hands-on sessions at the Arctic LTER Site. The program, funded partly by the NSF Office of Polar Programs, continues today and has served more than 35 journalists from around the world.

• Center co-director Jerry Melillo, Paul Steudler, and Chris Neill launch a long-term study of the impacts of deforestation on small Amazonian streams and rivers in Brazil. Since 1970 more than 250,000 square miles of Amazon forest have been cleared, making it the largest land conversion on Earth.

• Using a computer model, Ed Rastetter and Gus Shaver analyze limitation of plant production by multiple resources and explain why increased rates of carbon sequestration in response to elevated carbon dioxide are likely to be only transient unless the plant's supply of nutrients is also increased.

• Chuck Hopkinson, Linda Deegan, Anne Giblin, Bruce Peterson, and Joe Vallino establish the Plum Island Estuary Project as the first site of the NSF Land Margin Ecosystem Research (LMER) Program.

Using the center’s Terrestrial Ecosystems Model (TEM), Melillo and colleagues publish a new global-scale estimate of the effects of warming and increased carbon dioxide on plant photosynthesis. Their results demonstrate the importance of tropical forests, which contribute over half the total photosynthesis but make up just 20% of the land area. TEM is the first computer model that provides the carbon budget of all the different ecosystems of the earth’s land surface. It utilizes environmental data from 62,000 cells.

Jerry Melillo and John Hobbie 1995

Co-directors Jerry Melillo and John Hobbie in 1995

Jerry Melillo serves two years as Associate Director for the Environment in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in Washington, DC.

Center scientists launch the Semester in Environmental Science (SES), a program that provides U.S. undergraduates theoretical, field, and laboratory training, and culminates in an individual research project that applies ecosystem science to a real-world problem. More than 40% of SES students have gone on to receive graduate degrees and advanced training in environmental law, public health, civil engineering, oceanography, and ecosystems science.

The Plum Island LMER Project joins the LTER network to assess how development, sewage, fertilizer use, and other human impacts affect coastal salt marshes. NSF-supported research dating from the 1980s is providing information essential to preserving marshes up and down the eastern seaboard, which shelter homes from storm damage and provide habitat for shorebirds and commercial fishes. Plum Island was the first of the coastal LTERs, with a mandate to examine the coupled influences of activities on land and the sea as they influenced estuarine or ecosystems at the land-sea interface.

• The Ecosystems Center moves into the new C. V. Starr Building for Environmental Sciences. The building provides state-of-the art laboratories and teaching facilities, and is a centerpiece building of the MBL campus.

C. V. Starr Building

C. V. Starr Environmental Sciences Building, dedicated in 2001

• Using simulation models, Ed Rastetter and Gus Shaver, with colleagues from Sweden and California, analyze the paradox of persistent nitrogen limitation in ecosystems with nitrogen-fixing species able to acquire nitrogen directly from the atmosphere. They conclude that nitrogen fixation is too energetically expensive to maintain unless the forest canopy is open and the amount of nitrogen cycling within the ecosystem is low.

Center scientists under the leadership of Bruce Peterson complete an in-depth study of the effects of Arctic river discharge into the Arctic Ocean and discover that large rivers are a major cause of a freshening trend in this once-salty ocean. Documenting this phenomenon is crucial to understanding how a fresher Arctic Ocean could have serious climate implications.

• Linda Deegan leads a group of center scientists and colleagues in initiating the only long-term experimental alteration of a coastal ecosystem in the world that examines the synergistic effects of increased nutrients and species change on the ecosystem services provided by coastal ecosystems. This experiment is providing new evidence that animals are strong determinates of nitrogen processing and suggests salt marshes may be limited in their ability to protect coastal systems from eutrophication.

• The MBL and Brown University forge a powerful education and research partnership. The alliance results in the Brown-MBL Graduate Program in Biological and Environmental Science, and students working with center scientists under this program are groomed for key roles in the stewardship of our planet.

Joe Vallino and Ken Foreman test a novel strategy to remove nitrate from groundwater by installing a pilot-scale subsurface permeable reactive barrier along the beach at Waquoit Bay in Falmouth, Massachusetts. The barrier is found to effectively stimulate the native microbial community to convert groundwater nitrate into nitrogen gas, thereby removing the pollutant before it enters the bay.

Chuck Hopkinson and Joe Vallino publish a new estimate of the export of dissolved organic matter into the deep ocean that revises our thinking about the role of the coastal oceans in the global carbon cycle.

John Hobbie and Erik Hobbie (University of New Hampshire) develop a novel way to calculate the transfer of nitrogen from Arctic mushrooms to plants, and reveal how fungi living symbiotically on plant roots transfer nutrients to them. The method sheds light on nitrogen cycling in the arctic tundra ecosystem. Symbiotic root fungi (mycorrhizae) are globally distributed, ubiquitous members of plant communities, but until now their true significance was poorly understood.

Hugh Ducklow at Palmer Station

Hugh Ducklow in Antarctica

• Under the leadership of Chris Neill, the Ecosystems Center joins with the Nature Conservancy to restore globally rare sandplain ecosystems. These beautiful and species-rich environments are disappearing at an alarming rate, and insights gained at the project’s launch site on the Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard will help save sandplains throughout the Northeastern U.S.

• MBL and University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) researchers establish a Pan-Arctic network for the study of the carbon, water, and energy balance of the Arctic landscape. The project, which will centralize data collected at four long-term observatories across the Arctic, promises the first comprehensive look at how global warming is changing a massive ecosystem that influences our global climate.

• Hugh Ducklow succeeds John Hobbie as Ecosystems Center co-director. As lead principal investigator of the Palmer Antarctica Long Term Ecological Research Project, Ducklow brings the number of LTER sites hosted at the MBL to three. Palmer LTER, located on the Antarctic Peninsula, one of the most rapidly warming regions on Earth, seeks to understand how ecosystems respond to rapid climate change.

Two scientists, Zoe G. Cardon of the University of Connecticut and Jianwu (Jim) Tang of the Chicago Botanic Garden, join the Ecosystems Center staff. Cardon, a terrestrial ecologist and senior scientist, is a nationally recognized ecologist with expertise in plant physiological ecology and plant-rhizosphere (the interface between roots and soil) interactions. She is collaborating with the MBL’s Bay Paul Center in the Micro-Eco Interface, an initiative that bridges research of the Ecosystems and Bay Paul Centers. Tang is a soil ecologist and assistant scientist at the center, studying the impact of climate change on ecosystem processes and functions and the feedback of terrestrial ecosystems to climate change. He has developed a novel carbon flux measurement system to simulate carbon and water exchange between terrestrial ecosystems and the atmosphere across various scales.

An important update on global warming, Global Climate Change: Its Impacts in the United States, is completed by a team of climate experts from across the country and Canada, co-edited by Jerry Melillo, senior scientist and co-director of the Ecosystems Center, and Thomas R. Karl and Thomas C. Peterson, both of NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center in Ashville, North Carolina. The report was commissioned by the U. S. Government’s Climate Change Science.

Senior Scientist Christopher Neill is named Rosenthal Director of the Brown-MBL Partnership. Neill’s directorship is sponsored by an endowment of more than $2 million established by MBL Trustee and Brown Trustee Emeritus Charles Rosenthal and his wife, Phyllis.The expanded partnership is aimed at generating new joint research opportunities, strengthening graduate education, and enriching academic offerings across the two institutions. The partnership builds upon a joint Brown-MBL Ph.D. program launched in 2003.

Jerry Melillo is named chairman of a joint public-private sector committee that will produce the next National Climate Assessment report for the United States.

Hugh Ducklow, Ecosystems Center director, is appointed to the U.S. Antarctic Program Blue Ribbon Panel by John Holdren of President Obama's Office of Science and Technology Policy and Subra Suresh, National Science Foundation director. The panel will examine the status and capabilities of the U.S. Antarctic program in anticipation of the upcoming renegotiation of the Antarctic Treaty.
• Ecosystems Center Scientists serve on the world stage. They have co-authored key environmental documents, including the reports that resulted in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Control’s shared 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore. They also hold key government advisory roles and serve on national-level planning committees for science initiatives, on boards, as officers of scientific societies, and as conveners of professional conferences.

• MBL ecosystems modelers have designed several important simulation models—including the Terrestrial Carbon Model, the Terrestrial Ecosystems Model, the General Ecosystem Model, and the Multiple Element Limitation Model—to help predict how climate change and other environmental disturbances will impact our planet’s health. The information is helping policymakers and resource managers make wise choices now to protect our environment for future generations.

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