Robert Howarth

Who am I?

I am an Earth systems scientist and ecosystem biologist. I earned a B.A. from Amherst College in biology (1974) and a Ph.D. in biological oceanography jointly from MIT and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (1979). After several years as a staff scientist in the MBL’s Ecosystem Center, I joined the faculty at Cornell University in 1985 and was appointed the David R. Atkinson Professor of Ecology & Environmental Biology in 1993. I believe that environmental policy should be driven by quality, objective science, and I have had extensive experience with national and international efforts to synthesize such science, including as chair of an NAS committee on coastal ocean nutrient pollution and chair of two projects of the International Council of Science: one on global nitrogen issues and one on the environmental consequences of biofuels. I also served as director of the Oceans Program for the Environmental Defense Fund while on leave from Cornell between 2000 and 2003. I enjoy scientific editing as well. I am the Founding Editor of Biogeochemistry and served as Editor-in-Chief for more than 20 years. Since 2014, I have been the Editor-in-Chief of Limnology & Oceanography, the flagship journal for the Association for the Sciences of Limnology & Oceanography and one of the world’s premier aquatic science journals. I have published over 200 scientific papers, reports, and book chapters. My most recent book is the 4th edition of the text Essentials of Ecology (Begon, Howarth, and Townsend, 2014).

What do I do?

Jointly with my wife and long-time science colleague Dr. Roxanne Marino, I run a diverse research program involving field measurements, experimentation, and modeling. My research  interests include: application of science to sustaining the biosphere; biogeochemistry and aquatic ecosystem science; global and regional nitrogen and phosphorus cycles; global methane cycle; environmental consequences of biofuels; role of trace gases in global warming and climate disruption; life-cycle analysis for greenhouse-gas footprint of energy technologies; influence of land-use, management practices, and climate change on nutrient fluxes from the landscape; atmospheric deposition of nitrogen onto the landscape; controls and consequences of eutrophication in estuaries; biotic, physical, and geochemical controls on nitrogen fixation; and environmental management and the effects of pollutants on aquatic ecosystems. At Cornell, I teach the graduate class in biogeochemistry and a large freshmen class in ecology & environment.

Why do I come to the MBL?

I love the intellectual fervor of the Woods Hole scientific community, and the MBL’s Ecosystem Center is one of the strongest groups anywhere working on global and ecosystem-scale ecology. Their facilities provide excellent support for our research, and I always enjoy my intellectual discussions with the Center’s staff as well as with researchers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the Woods Hole Research Center. Roxanne and I have worked at the MBL since 2000 (in addition to our time in the early 1980s) and very much feel part of the community.

What do I work on at the MBL?

My research at the MBL is focused largely on the consequences of nitrogen pollution in West Falmouth Harbor, a 70-hectare seagrass-dominated lagoon 10 km north of Woods Hole. This harbor is the site of an unplanned whole-ecosystem experiment: due to inadvertent contamination of a groundwater aquifer that flows to the harbor, nitrogen inputs increased 3-fold in the early part of this century. We have studied the ecological and biogeochemical consequences since 2004 with funding from the National Science Foundation and Woods Hole SeaGrant. Our study is the only one in the world to evaluate the long-term consequences of a large nitrogen addition (and nitrogen alone, with no increase in other pollutants) on a seagrass-based ecosystem. The source of the nitrogen pollution has now been cleaned up, and with a new 5-year grant from the National Science Foundation awarded May 2017, we intend to examine the trajectory of recovery of the harbor from nitrogen pollution.

More information:

See the Howarth/Marino lab website at: