Jennifer Balch, a postdoctoral associate, for example, is studying the impact of fire on global ecosystems and climate change, an area she believes has been under-appreciated until now. In 2009, she was one of 22 scientists writing in Science who concluded that intentional deforestation fires alone contribute up to one-fifth of the human-caused increase in emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide, a contributor to global warming. The paper was cited in a Congressional Research Report last year.
Balch also represented the center in 2009 at the Governor’s Summit on Climate Change, a California meeting convened by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, where she spoke to four Amazon governors about the serious threat of escaped wildfires on tropical forests. “Some of my work in the Amazon has implications for understanding very high tree death with fire and drought,” she says. “The 2010 drought in the Amazon was severe. Fire tends to kill small stems, but drought tends to kill large trees, so combined they can have devastating effects.”
In other work, researchers are trying to better understand the process of decomposition of plant litter and soil organic matter, since the process adds more than ten times the amount of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than fossil fuel burning and other industrial sources. The scientists are asking, among other things, whether small changes in decomposition rates, possibly through changing the behavior of microbes, could have large impacts on the atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide.
“As atmospheric CO2 levels continue to rise, predicting whether ecosystems will help us out by storing more carbon, or contribute to the problem by releasing more carbon, has become a central focus in ecology,” says Carol Adair, also a postdoctoral associate at the center. “To make these predictions, we use what we have learned about ecology and ecosystems to create models of how ecosystems work. Because decomposition plays such a large role in the global C cycle, it is crucial to develop models that accurately portray this process. My work is winnowing out the models that best predict large-scale, long-term decomposition.”
Another working group of ecologists, chemists, and eco-toxicologists with experience in coastal oil spills is collecting and studying data from the Gulf Coast oil spill in 2010. The group plans to design a conceptual framework outlining the potential long-term, direct, and indirect eco-toxicological impacts upon Gulf populations and communities. The goal is to help promote decision-making and future strategic research programs.
Other projects, to name a few, include a study on the impact of urbanization on global biodiversity; an examination of the future of shark populations on coral reefs; the influence of climate and the environment on where species live; and an examination of the intersection between ecologists and social scientists.
“Collectively there are 15 to 20 scientists from around the world working on different topics at any given time,” McCauley says. “Every week, there is a new topic. Every week, the world comes here. Every week is an adventure.”
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