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Terrestrial Ecosystem Science

About the Program

Program Mission

The Terrestrial Ecosystem Science (TES) program operates within the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science’s Office of Biological and Environmental Research (BER). TES seeks to improve the representation of terrestrial ecosystem processes in Earth system models, thereby improving the quality of climate model projections and providing the scientific foundation of solutions for DOE’s most pressing energy and environmental challenges.

Why the Program's Research Is Important

A significant fraction of the CO₂ released to the atmosphere during energy production is taken up by terrestrial ecosystems. This “sink” for anthropogenic carbon represents an important buffer, offsetting the greenhouse gas effects of CO2 emissions. However, the effects of related processes such as nutrient, water, and energy cycling, in addition to climate variability and change on that sink, remain a mystery. Uncertainties about how terrestrial ecosystems will function in a changing climate hamper efforts to determine long-term impacts and stability of carbon in the biosphere. This limitation makes resolving the role of the terrestrial biosphere in the global carbon cycle a high priority.

Future climatic changes will almost certainly affect critically sensitive ecosystems and their inherently important ecosystem processes. Understanding the foundational properties of these ecosystem processes is essential for improving the ability to predictively model terrestrial ecosystems and potential forcing feedbacks. TES research will continue to navigate the forefront of interactions between terrestrial ecosystems and a changing climate.

Program Approach

The TES program develops unique, foundational scientific insights about the terrestrial biosphere’s role in the global cycling of carbon, nutrients, and water. The program also supports research examining the feedbacks between the terrestrial biosphere and Earth’s climate system. TES focuses on ecosystems and ecological processes that are globally or regionally significant, expected to be sensitive to climate change, and insufficiently understood or inadequately represented in models. As part of the Climate and Environmental Sciences Division (CESD), TES coordinates its activities with BER’s climate modeling program (and research from other federal agencies), ensuring that experimental and observational results are incorporated into Earth system models to improve climate projections.

Overall, the program solicits, reviews, selects, and funds foundational science that supports the TES mission. Research projects are directed at specific scientific endpoints attainable within a set period. The program is a leader among U.S. and international agencies in the design, construction, and operation of pioneering, long-term, manipulative field experiments addressing critical terrestrial processes and their role in a changing climate.

Building on BER’s Legacy of Experimental Innovation


Terrestrial ecosystems respond to changes at varying scales of time and space, with some long-term effects emerging slowly over many years. Understanding these responses often requires observation or manipulation over extended time periods. BER has a distinguished history of designing, testing, and implementing leading-edge experimental approaches to study long-term effects of climate and atmospheric composition on the structure and functioning of terrestrial ecosystems. The Free-Air CO2 Enrichment (FACE) method of controlling elevated CO2 (and ozone) concentrations within ecosystems is one such success story; FACE is now used throughout the world in a wide range of ecosystems. Results of the FACE experiments are invaluable in forecasting both future atmospheric CO2 concentrations and the role of terrestrial ecosystems in future climates. Large-scale, long-term experimental precipitation and temperature manipulation experiments also were pioneered by BER. These studies provide vital knowledge about the effects of changing precipitation on the structure and functioning of terrestrial ecosystems, as well as the regional-scale regulation of weather and climate carried out by ecosystems. Current and future investments include BER’s innovative concept for coupling models with experimental and observational campaigns, called the Next Generation Ecosystem Experiments (NGEE). 

The NGEE concept is being targeted in globally important, climatically sensitive, and poorly understood ecosystems currently, the Arctic (http://ngee-arctic.ornl.gov/) and tropics (http://esd.lbl.gov/ngee-tropics/). TES will build on this legacy and reshape the fundamental approach to long-term ecosystem studies through model-inspired research activities. Additional investments in large-scale, open-top chamber ecosystem manipulations are supported in the Spruce and Peatland Responses Under Climatic and Environmental Change (SPRUCE) (http://mnspruce.ornl.gov/) project being conducted in the Marcell Experimental Forest in northern Minnesota.

BER investments also provide management and support infrastructure for the AmeriFlux Network (http://ameriflux.lbl.gov), the interagency activity coordinating long-term CO₂ (and energy) flux measurements across North America. Approximately 100 sites across the continent make continuous measurements of ecosystem carbon flux, providing important insights into these processes as well as the long-term records needed to validate model projections.


Program Priorities

TES contributes to CESD’s Strategic Goal No. 2: “Develop, test, and simulate process-level understanding of atmospheric systems and of terrestrial ecosystems extending from the bedrock to the top of the vegetative canopy. This understanding is captured as predictive relationships to drive coupled regional and global models that inform future research and energy decisions.” The need to understand ecosystem responses to warming, as well as increasing atmospheric CO2 concentration and altered precipitation timing and amount, is essential to improving projections of both the feedbacks between the biosphere and atmosphere as well as the ecological effects of climate change. Through hypothesis-driven observations; experimental manipulations; and large-scale, long-term field studies, TES focuses on foundational research, including studies in critical and potentially sensitive ecosystems. The goals are to understand and explain mechanisms and processes controlling primary production and carbon cycling, biogeochemistry, and the impacts of disturbance on terrestrial ecosystems. This information is required to improve model-based projections of climate change.

Leveraging Other DOE Assets

TES advances fundamental understanding of environmental processes through a unique set of BER programs and user facilities. See Related Programs for more details.

Funding Opportunities

The TES program supports mission-oriented research performed by (1) integrated research programs (scientific focus areas) at national laboratories; (2) university researchers with multidisciplinary capabilities; and (3) university-based “exploratory” research for new concepts, tools, and approaches. Funding opportunities are posted at grants.gov.

See Funding Announcements for more details.

Featured Submitted Highlight

Meet FRED: A Global Fine-Root Ecology Database
A global Fine-Root Ecology Database to improve belowground understanding and modeling.

Research Highlights

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Now Featuring

Expanding the Use of Plant Trait Observations and Ecological Theory in Earth System Models [05/16]

Building a Cyberinfrastructure for Environmental System Science: Modeling Frameworks, Data Management, and Scientific Workflows [10/15]

Building Virtual Ecosystems: Computational Challenges for Mechanistic Modeling of Terrestrial Environments [2/15]

Now Featuring

DOE Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory

DOE Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory
YouTube Video

EMSL Director Allison Campbell interviews Malak Tfaily, a post doc in EMSL's Spectrometry group. TES funds Tfaily's role at EMSL. (June 29, 2014)



Related BER Research Highlights