Research Thrusts

Our goal is to advance basic scientific understanding of SPA interactions to solve problems of broad ecological and societal significance. Three axis of interdisciplinary convergence orient integration of socioecological theory, empirical observations, data synthesis, and models to inform land use policy and management using a holistic data-driven approach. 

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Our current projects focus on accelerating climate change mitigation and adaptation at local to regional scales. To this end, we use a co-production of knowledge approach with partnerships with communities oriented by three general research thrusts:

1- Understanding the impact of past socioecological trajectories on the current distribution and function of terrestrial ecosystems.

The pursuit of solutions for current global challenges is in many ways synonymous with the search for historical knowledge to support theoretical and practical inquiry into sustainability. Every system that has persisted through time acquired some degree of resilience to environmental change. We use archives of past environmental conditions, such as tree ring cellulose, soil organic matter, and speleothem carbonates, combined with measurements of stable isotopes, elemental analyses, and radiometric dating to elucidate how environmental change has impacted socioecological systems before and after humans became a dominant planetary force. For example, our current NSF-funded research focuses on describing the influence of climate variability on the distribution of modern tropical forest and savanna biomes, providing critical information for understanding the forces that shaped ancient land use practices that gave rise to contemporary societies.

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2- Quantifying the effects of atmospheric composition and climate on vulnerable natural and human-engineered ecosystems.

Since the industrial revolution, the human influence on the global environment has become so large that a case has been made for a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene. Using observational and experimental data to investigate fundamental biophysical and biogeochemical processes, we quantify the impacts of rising carbon dioxide levels, nitrogen deposition and shifting soil quality on the performance of agricultural and forestry species, as well as on the distribution and function of whole ecosystems. For example, our recently completed projects provide long-term data from natural and managed ecosystems to predict changes in productivity, water and nutrient use for energy, timer, and food production.

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3- Developing management and restoration technologies to enhance carbon drawdown and permanence with co-benefits.

We study how SPA interactions control the rates of photosynthetic carbon assimilation and transfer to soil compartments as well as their tradeoffs with water and nutrient use. Such interactions can be harnessed to accelerate carbon drawdown and permanence while provide solutions for multiple environmental challenges. For example, our current NSF-funded projects combine conservation, management, and restoration efforts to improve carbon sequestration and socioeconomic sustainability of working landscapes across the Pacific Northwest of the USA and in central Brazil, as model temperate and tropical systems. In those model systems, we are testing how prescribed fire and urban waste disposal can be coordinated with habitat restoration to increase soil carbon content and stability with socioeconomic co-benefits. Using historical baselines from a variety of natural and managed ecosystems, we evaluate how landscape prioritization can enhance carbon stocks and essential ecosystem services to foster sustainable development.

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