Research Overview

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.

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 28 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

Ecosystem Modeling. The foundation of any science is an underpinning theoretical structure that ties together the components and processes that are addressed by the science. This foundation is particularly important in ecology because of the extraordinary complexity of ecological systems. At The Ecosystems Center, we use mathematical models both for formulating theories and for making quantitative predictions based on them. The models we have developed include the Terrestrial Ecosystem Model (TEM), the Multiple Element Limitation model (MEL), and models to address how microbial communities are structured by their use of energy and nutrients and how these environmental “microbiomes” and the ecosystem services they provide change subject to environmental pressures.  We use these models to study how organisms optimize resource acquisition from their environment, how various ecosystems around the world are likely to respond to elevated CO2, climate warming, changes in precipitation, and disturbances like wildfire and clear cutting. We also use these models to assess the potential of the biosphere to mitigate climate change through carbon sequestration. To develop these models, we rely on field and laboratory data collected by Ecosystems Center scientists and our colleagues around the world. Our model results help guide future field and laboratory studies, and inform resource use and environmental policy.
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.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Mailing Address

The Ecosystems Center
7 MBL Street
Woods Hole, MA 02543-1015

Physical Address

CV Starr Environmental Laboratory
11 Albatross Street
Woods Hole, MA

Support Us

Support the Ecosystems Center with a gift to the MBL Annual Fund!