The task of managing ecosystems and biodiversity confronts human society with a host of difficult questions that cannot be answered rigorously without a historic perspective. Are the booms and busts in salmon, sardine, and anchovy populations along the Pacific coast solely the result of fishing practices? How have decades of fire suppression in the western United States altered the frequency and character of fires and the nature of forest communities? How do we set goals for restoration of Florida Everglades and other coastal habitats given the prolonged modification of these complex systems from their original pristine states that existed before human alteration?
In turn, answering these practical questions depends on answers to broader questions: What were the dynamics of fish populations along the Pacific coast before significant human impact? On average, how regularly did forests in the western United States burn over the last millennium? What has been the range of hydrologic and vegetation conditions experienced in Florida’s subtropical swamps over the last 10,000 years?
With a still broader perspective, it is also of considerable scientific and policy interest to know the answers to a range of important questions: What are the characteristics of Earth’s environments and biotas when the polar regions have little or no permanent ice? How flexible are species, functional groups, and ecosystems in the face of climate and other environmental change under genuinely natural conditions? How do communities reassemble following major perturbations or significant decreases in diversity? Will there be feedbacks from changed biotas that affect the climate system? Are present day losses of biocomplexity significantly
different in rate or magnitude than the declines that took place in the absence of any human influence? Are the effects of declines in ecological diversity today likely to have the same effects as those in the past?
The answers to all these questions—whether targeting site-specific problems or exploring general principles of ecological dynamics—require detailed, reliable information on past species abundances and environmental conditions from time intervals predating the last century of direct observation by scientists. Although the past decade has seen major advances in understanding the global climate system by a combination of real-time observations, modeling, and paleoclimate records, predicting and planning for the future depends upon our ability to understand not only how and why environments change but also how and why biological systems react. We also need to understand how biological systems themselves mediate important elements of environmental change ranging from key climatic parameters to biogeochemical cycles. Ecological dynamics (see Box 1.1), whether at the single-species, community, or global scale, generally have been studied by biologists over relatively brief timescales (one to two decades at most) and almost always in systems already highly altered by human activities.
There is thus a growing realization that only geohistorical data—the organic remains, biogeochemical signals, and associated sediments of the geological record—can provide a time perspective sufficiently long to establish the full range of natural variability of complex biological systems, and to discriminate human perturbations from natural cycles (e.g., Jablonski and Sepkoski, 1996; Swetnam et al., 1999; Lawton, 1999; McDonald and Chure, 2001; Woodruff, 2001; Hubbell, 2001; Barnosky et al., 2004). Such data are crucial for acquiring the necessary long-term perspective on modern systems and, by sampling past environmental states both like and unlike those of the present day, for providing the empirical framework needed to discover the general principles of biosphere behavior that would permit prediction and management of future change. This time perspective, which is outside the reach of conventional ecological monitoring (e.g., Long Term Ecological Research [LTER] sites; see Chapter 4), is readily accessible through geohistorical records. The rigorous evaluation of such records by earth scientists over the last few decades has shown that both the character and the rate of biotic response to environmental change can be determined with confidence. Advances in the development of proxy environmental indicators, the reconstruction of species ecologies, and sophisticated dating methods, are changing the way biologists view the world and have prompted a series of workshops on how to best capitalize upon the unique opportunities that geohistorical records afford for direct analysis and modeling of biological systems (e.g., Cohen et al., 1998; Aubry et al., 2000; Flessa, 2000; Myers and Knoll, 2001). Indeed,
The term “biosphere dynamics” is used in this report to refer to the ecological and evolutionary changes that occur as biological systems respond to, and contribute to, environmental change. Organisms respond to environmental change at many scales—from the individual to the entire biosphere, and from near instants in time to the entire record of life on Earth. Biosphere dynamics encompasses diverse processes, including growth rates of individuals and populations, shifts in geographic range, alterations in the rates and kinds of biogeochemical cycling, changes in the composition of communities over varied timescales, speciation, and local, regional, and global extinction. With this vast array of phenomena that could be subsumed under the term biosphere dynamics, the committee chose to concentrate its efforts on the geologic record of “ecological dynamics”—the changes and interactions in the earth-life system expressed as alterations in features such as species distributions, species abundance, environment, and climate.
The “geologic record” consists of all the direct lithologic, fossil, and geochemical evidence of Earth’s history. Taken together, the geologic record is an incomplete archive because some time intervals and places are absent or less well represented than others. “Geohistorical records,” a term commonly used in this report, are the individual stratigraphic sections, sediment or ice cores, tree ring series, fossil collections, specimens, or archaeological remains that provide temporal, environmental, and biological information about a particular place. Such geohistorical records can provide extraordinarily rich, high-resolution information about how changes of past biotas are connected to other aspects of environmental change. Collectively, the geologic record is incomplete, but individual geohistorical records (e.g., subannual growth increments in skeletal remains, annual- to decadal-resolution sediment layers, assemblages of skeletal remains before and after critical environmental changes) are more than adequate to document past ecological dynamics and are a key to understanding the biotic effects of future environmental change.
analyses of geohistorical records have already proven critical to understanding the origin, maintenance, and distribution of biodiversity; the character of biotic response to climate change; and the effects of societal activities on biotic systems (see Chapters 2 and 3). Such research, at the interface of the geological and biological sciences, holds enormous promise for both basic and applied research on the nature of biotic change.
BACKGROUND TO THIS REPORT
Previous federally sponsored reports have called for greater collaboration between geologists and biologists in efforts to understand how biotic systems respond to environmental change. Indeed, some of the recommendations in this report can be traced to discussions and promising research themes identified in earlier reports. This fact is evidence of the broad, community-level interest in these issues, the continuing necessity for priority setting within the research community, and the need for substantive support from funding agencies, mission agencies, and academic institutions. These earlier reports include:
Effects of Past Global Changes in Life (NRC, 1995) reported the scientific findings of a symposium held at the Geological Society of America meeting in 1989. This volume called for expanded interdisciplinary research on the response of life to global environmental changes, the identification of secular changes in biogeochemical cycles, the construction of conceptual and numerical models of geosphere-biosphere interactions, and improvements in proxy environmental indicators, ecological indicators, and geochronological techniques.
A subsequent National Science Foundation (NSF) supported white paper Geobiology of Critical Intervals (Stanley, 1997) proposed an initiative to foster research on intervals of geologic time that constituted natural experiments on the structure and dynamics of the earth-life system. Such an initiative would take advantage of the deep-time perspective available in the geologic record to elucidate the biotic responses to environmental change across a broad range of temporal and spatial scales. This report also addressed strategies to improve temporal resolution, foster the development of proxy indicators for environmental and biotic parameters, and develop quantitative models of the earth-life system.
The 1999 report to the NSF on research directions in paleontology (Flessa, 2000) provided input to the NRC (2001a) report Basic Research Opportunities in Earth Science. Flessa (2000) identified four related research themes focused on understanding the rates and mechanisms of change in the earth-life system: (1) the rules of biodiversity dynamics at a full range of temporal and spatial scales; (2) the triggers and characteristics of major evolutionary innovations; (3) how biological systems have affected the physical and chemical nature of the earth’s surface and changes in biogeochemical cycling through time; and (4) how the biosphere responds to environmental perturbation. The report also noted the potential of paleontological data and approaches to providing baseline information on environmental and biotic variability before human impact. Recommendations included increased support for single investigators and for
focused, interdisciplinary themes; an initiative to support the development of databases to integrate information on the history of the earth-life system; and linking active research to education and public outreach. These recommendations were strongly endorsed by the international paleontological community (Flessa and Steininger, 2000).
NRC’s (2001a) report on Basic Research Opportunities in Earth Science considered these and other research themes in the context of the entire earth science discipline and noted, among other issues, the importance of (1) increased understanding of the interactions between earth systems and biologic processes; and (2) the importance of basic research on the origin and evolution of life. The report called for increased funding for the long-term support of geobiology and the further integration of geobiological research with ongoing efforts to address critical research questions in the environmental sciences.
This present report not only builds on these earlier efforts but also explicitly seeks to find common ground with the biological sciences in identifying research areas in which interdisciplinary collaborations will be most productive. In addition, this report seeks to address ways the mission of the U.S. Geological Survey—providing scientific knowledge that can be applied to address the nation’s critical needs in natural resource and environmental management—can be accomplished through research efforts that integrate biological and geological approaches to understanding the past and future development of ecological systems.
This report differs from its precursors in its focus on the ecological consequences of environmental change. In light of the charge (see Box 1.2) to assess the prospects for the use of the geologic record as a key for understanding the biotic effects of future environmental change, the committee made a strategic decision to focus its efforts on the processes and biotic consequences that would most likely be expressed over the next decades, centuries, and millennia. This decision was made in recognition of the imminent impact of environmental change on ecosystem services provided to society, and the need for society to manage and mitigate change and its consequences in the very near future.
The geologic record is also an extraordinarily valuable resource for the study of diversification and extinction, how these evolutionary processes both mediate the biotic response to environmental change and cause change itself, and how the emergence of life and its subsequent evolution and diversification have affected the earth’s land surface, oceans, and atmosphere over very long timescales. The committee recognizes both the importance of these types of response and the significant opportunities for collaboration between biologists and geologists they provide. Such promise has been noted in many recent national reports
and reviews (e.g., NRC, 1995, 2001a; Richardson, 1996; Reaka-Kudla et al., 1997; Gastaldo and DiMichele, 2000; NAS Colloquium, 2000). However, a report that would also consider the evolutionary dimensions of the biotic response to environmental change was far beyond the resources available to this committee; a similar study focused on the geologic record of the evolutionary consequences of environmental change is urgently needed.
ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCES AND THE GEOLOGIC RECORD OF ECOLOGICAL DYNAMICS
Analysis of the geologic record of ecological dynamics is a critical means of addressing many aspects of the challenging environmental problems that confront society. Recent National Research Council (NRC) committees on Grand Challenges in Environmental Sciences (NRC, 2001c) and on the National Ecological Observatory Network (NRC, 2004) have identified six major environmental challenges, listed below. Insights provided by geohistorical records would be valuable for each effort and are required for most.
Biological diversity, species composition, and ecosystem functioning. “This challenge is to improve understanding of the factors affecting biological diversity and ecosystem functioning, including the role of human activity” (NRC, 2001c, p. 3).
Biogeochemical cycles. “The challenge is to further our understanding of the Earth’s major biogeochemical cycles, [and to] evaluate how they are being perturbed by human activities …” (NRC, 2001c, p. 2).
Ecological impacts of climate variability. “The challenge is to increase our ability to predict climate variations, from extreme events to decadal timescales, … and to assess realistically the resulting impacts. Important research areas include … extending the record of observations back into the Earth’s history, [and] improving diagnostic process studies…” (NRC, 2001c, p. 3).
Infectious disease and the environment. “The challenge is to understand ecological and evolutionary aspects of infectious diseases …” (NRC, 2001c, p. 3). The scientific community needs to “develop a comprehensive ecological and evolutionary understanding of infectious diseases affecting human, plant, and animal health” (NRC, 2001c, p. 60).
Land use and habitat alteration. “The challenge is to develop a systematic understanding of changes in human land uses and land covers that are critical to ecosystem functioning and services and human welfare” (NRC, 2001c, p. 4).
The National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) report (NRC, 2004) identified a sixth area of critical importance:
Invasive species. “The identification of potentially harmful invasive species, the early detection of new species as invasion begins, and the knowledge base needed to prevent their spread require … a mechanistic understanding of the interplay of invader, ecosystem traits, and other factors including climate and land use that determine invasiveness” (NRC, 2004, p. 25).
The geological record of biosphere dynamics provides the opportunity to assess the origin, rates, and development of evolutionary and ecological processes and past events that affect each of these six major themes. Importantly, the geologic record has the unique advantage of providing evidence for how ecological systems behave in the absence of human influence, thus allowing the discrimination of human-induced variability from other causes of biotic change, and of providing evidence for how ecological systems behave under a range of natural conditions different from those of the present day.
The geologic record permits two complementary approaches to basic research in the environmental and ecological sciences. One is to use the relatively recent past (intervals of time extending from the present back to as many as a few million years ago) as a dynamic context for present day conditions. The high-resolution data available in the most recent ~100,000 years have been exploited very effectively in the last decade of global change research, especially with analyses of sediment and ice cores for geochemical and other proxies for atmospheric and ocean behavior. This recent-past time frame has received less attention as a source of baseline information on species and ecosystems as biological entities, or as a means of investigating and understanding changes in biosphere behavior. As discussed in Chapter 3, opportunities abound in this area.
The second approach, equally valuable but less systematically pursued, is to take advantage of the entire past to investigate biosphere dynamics. This approach uses geologic records of all ages (i.e., time intervals that may be far older and longer than the past few million years) (1) as a source of replicate natural experiments (e.g., to determine variance in the biotic response to multiple instances of global or regional warming and fluctuating ice and sea levels); (2) to test the biosphere response to perturbations that differ in kind, rate, or magnitude, or when ecosystems are in different initial states (e.g., ecosystems that have suffered more degradation than found today—a situation relevant to issues of ecological recovery on a variety of temporal and spatial scales); and (3) to explore feedbacks between earth and life systems on longer timescales and in response to larger perturbations than afforded in the recent past, permitting a more fundamental exploration of the abilities of organisms to modulate and respond to the inorganic world.
Importantly, paleoenvironmental and paleobiological analyses do not necessarily require that the geologic record provide time series data in a strict sense, much less high-resolution time series (i.e., with a closely and evenly spaced series of comparable samples). Isolated snap shots—or even time-averaged samples—can provide immensely valuable insights into the behavior of ancient biological systems. For example, maps of time-averaged pollen percentages at continental scales have revealed the dynamic nature of late Quaternary vegetation and the underlying climatic controls (e.g., Huntley and Birks, 1983; Webb et al., 2004); snapshot fossil assemblages from rodent middens have shown unexpected shifts in plant distributions (Betancourt et al., 1990; Latorre et al., 2002); and analyses of historical, archaeological, and paleontological records have demonstrated the impact of overfishing on coastal ecosystems (J.B.C. Jackson et al., 2001). It is clear that data from even a single, crude pre-impact census would be valuable to a biologist studying a system where no monitoring program had been in place.
UNDERSTANDING PROCESSES—DIFFERENT PERCEPTIONS
Full use of geohistorical records in the analysis of ecological dynamics must overcome several challenges. Some of these challenges are scientific, for example, continuing to improve proxies for environmental conditions and species abundances, refining our ability to establish relative and absolute ages of deposits, and developing statistical treatments of incomplete or biased information (see Chapter 2). However, equally important is the task of bridging the methodological, cultural, and administrative gulfs between biological scientists and earth scientists, and among real-time, recent-past, and deep-past approaches that have hindered both basic research and applications to policy issues.
For the last three decades, many ecologists have studied how biotic systems work, primarily through a combination of short-term, relatively small-scale manipulative experiments and modeling. This necessarily has been largely reductive, with individual projects focusing on the roles or behaviors of limited numbers of species (both biological and biochemical), functional groups, or environmental parameters. Geologists and paleobiologists, on the other hand, have traditionally used observation and statistical pattern analysis of the fossil record to infer cause-and-effect relationships in past systems. Manipulative experiments are far less common, and modeling has focused more on evolutionary and macroevolutionary rather than ecological questions.
The parallel development of macroecology—the analysis of how the ecological attributes of large numbers of individuals and species varies over geography (e.g., Brown, 1995; Gaston and Blackburn, 2000; Hubbell,
2001)—and evolutionary paleoecology—the analysis of the ecological attributes of large numbers of individuals and species in time (e.g., Valentine, 1973; Jablonski and Sepkoski, 1996; Allmon and Bottjer, 2001)—is now providing common ground for ecologists and paleobiologists interested in inferring large-scale ecological processes from ecological and paleoecological patterns. Indeed, the biological community, which has become increasingly aware of the limitations of short-term, local experiments in understanding ecological systems, is increasingly open and eager to pursue ecosystems analysis on broader spatial and temporal scales. Pioneering paleobiologic analyses of geohistorical records already are having a tangible effect on the biosciences, in ecology, evolution, and conservation biology (e.g., Smith et al., 2004; Jablonski, 2001, 2002; Erwin, 2001; Hadly et al., 2003; Pääbo, 2000; and see examples in Chapter 3), in part because so many biological attributes critical to larger-scale phenomena are amenable to analysis in geologic records (e.g., richness, evenness, body size, habitat type, functional/trophic group, geographic range, raw speciation, and extinction rates). However, the fundamental differences in approach of the biological and earth sciences, and their reliance on different sources for research support and outlets for communication of results, will require special effort to overcome impediments to integrating the expertise and data from the two fields.
STATUS OF RESEARCH SUPPORT
Several federal agencies conduct or support research in one or more aspects of the geologic record of biosphere dynamics. These include the National Science Foundation (NSF), U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). This committee was not charged to review the programs of these agencies, and data from the public record are inadequate for a quantitative evaluation of effort, including the funding success of proposals by topic. Budget information—whether for research by agency scientists, grants to fund academic scientists, or from the private sector—is difficult to obtain and interpret because of varying funding periods, funding split among several programs within an agency (especially true for crosscutting initiatives), limited information about successful and unsuccessful research proposals, and many other factors.
Nevertheless, it is clear that the extraction, analysis, and synthesis of paleontologic, geologic, and geochemical evidence relevant to biosphere dynamics in the broadest sense have not yet been major priorities within federal agencies. Two of the agencies with greatest current effort on the geologic record of biosphere dynamics are NSF and USGS. These agen-
cies are the de facto leaders in advancing knowledge of geologic records and in applying that knowledge to understanding the likely biotic effects of future environmental change. Nevertheless, this topic forms only a small part of their missions.
The NSF and USGS differ greatly in their overall goals and methods:
The NSF is the principal federal agency charged with promoting the progress of the nation’s efforts in science and engineering exclusive of the health sciences. NSF achieves its mission largely though funding research grants to scientists and engineers in academic or non-governmental organizations. Although accountable to NSF, the actual research is overseen by the principal investigators. NSF officials are not involved in the research itself. Most funding is allocated though NSF’s traditional disciplinary programs. Proposals are initiated by the investigator rather than invited by the agency and funding decisions are based on peer reviews. In some cases, NSF officials, after consultation with the research community, allocate funds to stimulate research in a particular area. Such initiatives help focus efforts in highly promising areas. NSF’s criteria for evaluating research proposals include consideration of the potential benefits to society, but the agency is principally focused on enhancing the quality of basic research.
The USGS is “the Nation’s principal natural science and information agency [and] conducts research, monitoring and assessments to contribute to understanding the natural world” (USGS, 2000; p. 2). Although the USGS mission includes fundamental research on the natural world, much of the agency’s research is designed and directed to be applicable to society’s need to predict, prevent, and mitigate loss from natural hazards and to manage its natural and environmental resources in a sustainable fashion. These resources include mineral, energy, and water resources traditional to the USGS mission. Since the mid-1990s environmental issues such as contaminated environments, effects of climate change, and status of biological resources have been added to the agency’s mission (USGS, 1996; Bohlen et al., 1998). The USGS achieves its mission largely through the directed activities of its scientists and collaborating agencies on specific projects. Projects are reviewed and prioritized, largely internally, within the Geology, Biology, and Water Disciplines, each of which establishes its own strategic plan in the context of broader USGS and Department of the Interior strategic plans.
That both agencies support research on the geologic record of biosphere dynamics attests to the importance of this topic in both applied and basic research. Each agency provides instructive cases of successful modes of integrating earth science and bioscience efforts, as well as
examples of obstacles to multidisciplinary, multi-scale research. Such research requires intellectual receptivity (of review panels and managers), adequate funding levels (to overcome resistance from traditionalists and discouragement among investigators), funding targeted for new techniques and specialized equipment, and an organizational mandate to foster new directions and overcome structural impediments.
NSF Activities on Geologic Records
Research on the geologic record of biosphere dynamics is supported at NSF through core programs in the Directorate for Geosciences (GEO), which includes the Divisions of Atmospheric Sciences (ATM), Ocean Sciences (OCE), and Earth Sciences (EAR); the Directorate for Biosciences (BIO), particularly the Division of Environmental Biology (DEB); the Office of Polar Programs; and several of NSF’s crosscutting programs. These latter programs include (1) Biocomplexity in the Environment, administered out of the director’s office and containing Coupled Human-Natural Systems and Coupled Biogeochemical Cycles (initiated in FY1999); and (2) the Biogeosciences Initiative, administered by EAR (initiated FY2003).
Based on NSF data for FY2003 (public websites listing active projects as of December 2003), the number of awards in these programs that examine the response of biotas or ecosystems to climate or other environmental change, and that use the historic or geologic record in some way, is very small. For example, only 5 of 152 awards in ATM’s Paleoclimate initiative in OCE, ~10 out of 338 in Biological Oceanography, and ~10 out of 394 in Marine Geology and Geophysics are relevant by these criteria; and within the Ecological Studies cluster within DEB, only ~15 out of 175 are relevant (including only one out of 25 current awards for LTER).
The National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS), also supported by DEB, facilitates interdisciplinary research—including between the biological and physical sciences—through working groups, sabbaticals, and postdoctoral fellowships. Despite the lack of funding from GEO programs, NCEAS has supported a few projects involving geohistorical analysis (1 of 56 total current research awards, 10 of 207 past awards). Limited funds have caused overall funding rates to be very low across the breadth of topics considered by NCEAS.
Programs that could fund integrated analyses of environmental change and biotic response include Marine Aspects of Earth System History (MESH), the marine LTER program, and programs on Ecological Rates of Change (EROC) and Ecological Diversity. Such programs either lack the mandate to include the biotic response to past environmental change (MESH) or focus largely on biotic processes currently operating on annual to decadal timescales.
The majority of projects that investigate the behavior of biological systems on time frames beyond the last few decades have been funded by the Geology and Paleontology Program (GE)1 within EAR, constituting ~20 percent of a total of 268 funded projects for that core program in FY2003. GE’s broad portfolio also includes biogeochemistry, land-use dynamics, geomorphology, stratigraphy, and sedimentology. This core science program is thus the de facto home of geohistorical analysis within NSF. However, internal and external reviews (e.g., Knox et al., 1996; NRC, 2001a) have identified GE as severely oversubscribed and unable to adequately fund the breadth of disciplines for which it is responsible within the earth sciences. Between 1995 and 2000, GE received approximately 290 proposals per year, with a success rate of 20-25 percent, compared with an overall EAR success rate of 31 percent (NRC, 2001a), and it has consistently had one of the lowest funding rates of the core disciplines in GEO. Although GE has been reorganized to reduce the breadth of expertise required of individual panels and staff, total funding has not changed and thus success rates remain low. As concluded by NRC (2001a, p. 92), “None of the existing core programs [in EAR] have the intellectual scope or sufficient resources to accommodate a prolonged emphasis on geobiology.”
Other programs that fund research on, or are relevant to, geologic records of biosphere dynamics are the crosscutting Earth Systems History program (ESH), administered by ATM (no award data available); Biocomplexity in the Environment (BE; 9 out of 116); and the Biogeosciences Initiative (no award data available; calls for proposals so far have focused exclusively on microbe-mineral interactions).
Beyond the issue of funding levels is the relatively narrow temporal scope of successful projects. Across NSF, few relevant projects take advantage of more than the very youngest portion of the available geologic record (e.g., last few millennia at most). Moreover, among successful grants on geohistorical topics, the amount of research on developing proxy indicators of climate change or documenting the character and history of climate change overwhelms the amount of research on the biotic consequences of those changes.
Establishing crosscutting programs such as BE and ESH is an effective means of developing interdisciplinary collaborative efforts that make good use of the temporal scope available in the geologic record. However,
even EAR’s Biogeosciences Initiative, which integrates across biology and geology, has insufficient funds to focus on more than mineral-microbe interactions and consequently cannot support research on the other classes of interactions, trophic levels, and scales of biological organization that are of extraordinary importance to the biosphere—and to society.
USGS Activities on Geologic Records
USGS research relevant to the geologic record of ecological dynamics is conducted largely within its Geology and Biology Disciplines. The existing programs with greatest potential to advance—through geohistorical analysis—the USGS missions in natural and environmental resources are the Earth Surface Dynamics Program and the Coastal and Marine Geology Program administered by the Geology Discipline, and the Terrestrial, Freshwater and Marine Ecosystems Program of the Biology Discipline.
Further increased coordination and collaboration between these two divisions is an important priority, as articulated both by USGS strategic plans (USGS, 1996; Bohlen et al., 1998) and by recent external advice to the agency (NRC, 2001b). Such collaborative projects are increasing. The USGS has the opportunity to integrate these scientific communities and pursue research that combines their strengths to greatest advantage. The situation results from the relative novelty of having biological resources as part of the USGS portfolio (the National Biological Service was consolidated with the USGS only in 1996), and by the 1995 congressional directive to recast the agency’s mission more clearly in terms of societal needs. This has required the USGS to transform itself from a loosely linked cluster of independent units of research, monitoring, and assessment in the earth sciences (geology, water, and mapping), into an agency that conducts more applied research in environmental and natural sciences, which now includes the nation’s natural biological resources. As described by former USGS Director Eaton (Eaton, 2000), the incorporation of the ~1,600 scientists from the National Biological Service (individuals formerly employed by the Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, and Bureau of Land Management) into the USGS earth science community was in itself a more radical change than any in the 120-year history of the USGS (see also NRC, 2001b).
The application of earth science methods and materials—specifically geohistorical records—to understand, manage, and conserve the nation’s biological resources is a promising vehicle for integrating the biological and geological sciences across the organizational divisions of the USGS. Such integration provides an important means to advance elements of the Biology Discipline goal to provide accurate, comprehensive, and timely information on populations, communities, and ecosystems (NRC, 2001b).
At present, relatively few projects explicitly combine these fields in this way, perhaps because of the scientific challenge of bringing geohistorical evidence to bear on these issues.
Some modes of research collaboration for bridging these internal divisions have been successful. One highly successful mode has been where USGS scientists with appropriate expertise are embedded or otherwise placed in close geographic proximity to a university research campus, much as in the long-standing cooperative units of the Fish and Wildlife Service. In this arrangement, USGS research scientists are often housed within university facilities, have courtesy academic appointments, and often serve as research advisers or committee members for graduate students. This provides USGS researchers with more immediate and continuous interactions with collaborating partners, access to additional facilities and expertise, and invaluable informal, and in some instances formal, external review and feedback from a larger community of research colleagues. The university community benefits from collaborative research efforts, additional expertise and facilities, and employment and research opportunities for students.
In the earth sciences, the planned USGS Earth Surface Processes Research Institute (ESPRI) in Tucson is also a promising model. ESPRI will assemble 80-90 full-time researchers and support staff on the University of Arizona campus to investigate landscape change and ecosystems response. Researchers from several disciplines within ESPRI, often in collaboration with related, ongoing research at the University of Arizona, will be able to examine the interactions among climatic variability, landscape change, and ecosystem response across a spectrum of timescales. This effort will assist the USGS mission by developing criteria to distinguish between natural and anthropogenic influences on the landscape, predict potential hazards, and avoid degradation of natural resources.
Judging from existing arrangements of this type, federal personnel in such positions commonly develop formal associations with the university (e.g., adjunct faculty appointments), and thus contribute directly to the graduate and postdoctoral training of new scientists. The intellectual and logistical advantages of such arrangements also contribute to the recruitment and retention of excellent researchers within the USGS.
Site-specific projects—those in which the conditions of a particular location are the subject of investigation—are another good means of fostering collaborations across organizational boundaries. These projects have the advantages of being established as the need arises, without the commitment to physical facilities, and with clear time limits. Current examples include efforts by the Geology and Biology Disciplines, and various combinations of these and state agencies, to evaluate the legacy and present day levels of human impact in U.S. coastal areas, including south-
ern Florida, the Chesapeake Bay, Long Island Sound, and San Francisco Bay. Not all these projects include a biotic component (beyond using particular species as environmental proxies), and not all include the full breadth or depth of geohistorical information that might be valuable to understand the system of interest. Nevertheless, such projects have the potential to focus the talents of a broad array of USGS scientists on a common theme: the nature of biosphere response to environmental change.
Impediments to such collaborations in the USGS, as in other research and public service organizations, potentially include limited expertise available within the organization, limited funds or time made available by the external agency mandating the study, competing demands for instrumentation or personnel, and the physical separation of collaborators from different disciplines. Most of these impediments are beyond the power of the scientists themselves to modify or counterbalance to any meaningful extent. It thus falls upon the agency itself to consider ways to eliminate or minimize these effects. Outsourcing of some portions of the work to universities may, in some instances, make the most sense, both scientifically and logistically.
A productive strategy that the USGS has adopted, and that has broad value for the agency as a research entity, is the Mendenhall Postdoctoral Fellowship Program. This fellowship program brings new expertise to the USGS itself, and is very much like the previous USGS/NRC postdoctoral fellowships. Although the positions are temporary (two-year duration), the associations have potential to produce longer-term professional collaborations and expanded research networks. They also develop a better knowledge base in identifying the appropriate disciplines for future appointments. Each Mendenhall Fellow is attached to a particular project, designed by USGS personnel (in some instances with collaboration from the prospective fellow) to meet agency needs. The selection of proposed projects for advertisement, and of fellows to fill those positions, is based on internal review. These appointments also can be used to foster and reward efforts at integrative science, for example, if criteria for evaluation include whether the fellow is matched to a USGS scientist from the counterpart discipline. Fellowship programs such as this, the earlier NRC postdoctoral fellowships, and enlargement of support for graduate-student research, are excellent means of improving the effectiveness of the USGS effort by broadening and continuously updating the agency’s intellectual community.
Other Agency Activities
In general, other federal agencies play complementary roles in support of research on the geologic record of biosphere dynamics.
NOAA’s Paleoclimatology Program, based at the National Climatic Data Center, provides a rich source of paleoclimatic data for research on environmental change and biotic response.2 Climate reconstructions are typically limited to the Holocene and Pleistocene.
PAGES (Past Global Changes) is a core activity of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme3 that receives funding support from NOAA, NSF, and the Swiss National Science Foundation. PAGES “seeks to provide a quantitative understanding of the Earth’s environment in the geologically recent past and to define the envelope of natural environmental variability against which anthropogenic impacts on the Earth System may be assessed.”4 Research activities include work in terrestrial, lacustrine, and marine systems and are largely restricted to the Quaternary. Its primary focus has been on paleoclimate reconstruction and biosphere-atmosphere-ocean feedbacks, with relatively little attention to the biotic consequences of climate change. PAGES funds workshops and publications.
NASA’s Office of Earth Science seeks a global-scale understanding of the earth system, including how the component parts have evolved and how they will respond to future changes. Some individual awards and components of NASA’s Astrobiology Institute5 support analyses of early environments and early life on earth, the emergence of multicellular organisms, and the evolution of diversity. Little, if any, support examines the record of ecosystem response to past environmental change. In addition, the Exobiology Branch6 within NASA has funded a limited number of studies of biotic responses to mass extinctions.
The Department of Energy’s Program for Ecosystem Research supports experimental work on the “mechanistic understanding and quantification of ecosystem-scale responses to ongoing and potential future environmental changes associated with energy production.”7 Support for examining the record of past ecosystem response to environmental change is weak.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) supports both intramural research by its employees and, since 1995, an extramural funding program for individual investigators, graduate students, and research centers (STAR, Science to Achieve Results; see NRC, 2003a). Both problem-driven and core research are supported across the breadth of issues within
the agency’s mission, including environmental biology, regional assessments of ecosystems, and ecological indicators. Although STAR has previously funded graduate fellowships that include geohistorical approaches, no projects with a geohistorical approach were funded in FYs 2001-2003.
Private organizations such as the National Geographic Society, the Petroleum Research Fund of the American Chemical Society, Environmental Defense, and the Eppley Foundation for Research have funded evaluations of past environments and biotas. However, such subjects are only a small part of these organizations’ missions, and support levels are typically small—at most a few thousand or tens of thousand dollars per year for one to three years. Such funding is sufficient only for modest field or lab analysis and/or partial support for one graduate student’s dissertation project.
The extraction and analysis of paleontologic, geologic, and geochemical evidence relevant to biosphere dynamics has not been a major funding priority to date. Furthermore, methodological and administrative gulfs between biological and earth scientists, and among real-time, recent-past, and deep-past approaches, hinder both basic research and the transfer of geohistorical insights to policy on biological resources and global change. New collaborations among earth scientists and biologists are required to advance analysis of biosphere dynamics based on the geologic record, and to increase the engagement of the earth sciences in issues of environmental change.
COMMITTEE CHARGE AND SCOPE OF THE STUDY
Despite the considerable efforts of academic and federal researchers within the broad scope of the geologic record of ecological dynamics, there is insufficient collaboration between the earth science and biological research communities. Recognizing the enormous potential benefits, as well as the significant challenges, involved with promoting truly interdisciplinary research at the interface of earth science and biology, the NSF and USGS requested that the NRC undertake a study to identify the significant research questions and priorities and to provide advice on optimum ways to promote interdisciplinary research (see Box 1.2).
The committee assembled by the NRC to address this task held two open information-gathering meetings where representatives from federal agencies and the academic research community provided their perspectives on the committee’s task. An additional closed meeting was held for the committee to deliberate and write its report. As a result of this input and its internal deliberations, the committee has assessed the potential of the geological record to describe past interactions between biotas and
Committee on the Geologic Record of Biosphere Dynamics: The Key to Understanding the Biotic Effects of Future Environmental Change
The committee will describe the potential of the geologic record as a means of understanding biotic interactions with environmental change and the coupling of earth/life processes, and develop strategies for integrating earth and biological sciences and transferring their combined insights to the policy community. In particular, it will undertake the following tasks:
environmental parameters (Chapter 2), described three research themes where the rich and detailed geological record provides information on the response of past ecosystems to environmental and climatic change at a variety of timescales (Chapter 3), described the collaborative culture that will be required to make optimum use of the considerable capabilities of these two communities (Chapter 4), and made a series of conclusions and recommendations designed to achieve enhanced integration of the geological and biological sciences (Chapter 5).