Network Overview

Aaron Ellison (right) works with undergraduate students Chelsea Kammerer-Burnham (center) and David Diaz (left) in the summer undergraduate research program.(Harvard Forest LTER). HFR LTER.
Aaron Ellison (right) works with undergraduate students Chelsea Kammerer-Burnham (center) and David Diaz (left) in the summer undergraduate research program.(Harvard Forest LTER). HFR LTER.

The largest and longest-lived ecological network in the United States, LTER provides the scientific expertise, research platforms, and long-term datasets necessary to document and analyze environmental change.

The Network brings together a multi-disciplinary group of more than 2000 scientists and graduate students. The 26 LTER sites encompass diverse ecosystems in the continental United States, Alaska, Antarctica and islands in the Caribbean and the Pacific—including deserts, estuaries, lakes, oceans, coral reefs, prairies, forests, alpine and Arctic tundra, urban areas, and production agriculture.

The Network’s vision is a society in which long-term ecological knowledge contributes to the advancement of the health, productivity, and welfare of the global environment, thereby advancing human well-being. This vision underpins LTER’s mission, which is to provide the scientific community, policy makers, and society with the knowledge and predictive understanding necessary to conserve, protect, and manage the nation's ecosystems, their biodiversity, and the services they provide.

The LTER program was founded with the recognition that long-term and broad-scale research is necessary for truly understanding environmental phenomena. The program was designed to provide the long-term data and information that is needed for informed decision making from a broad range of key ecosystems. The program is unique in three ways:

  1. The research is located at specific sites chosen to represent major ecosystem types or natural biomes
  2. It emphasizes the study of phenomena over long periods of time, based upon data collection in five core areas
  3. Projects include significant integrative, cross-site, network-wide research

Research at LTER sites provides experiments, databases, and research programs for use by other scientists. It must test important ecological or ecosystem theories including, but not limited to, ecosystem stability, biodiversity, community structure, and energy flow. Recognizing that the value of long-term data extends beyond use at any individual site, the LTER Network makes data collected by all LTER sites broadly accessible to other investigators.

The LTER program has grown in size and mandate since its inception. It currently supports sites representing major biotic regions of the continental U.S., Alaska, islands in the Caribbean and the Pacific, and the Antarctic continent. Its disciplinary scope includes population and community ecology, ecosystem science, evolutionary biology, phylogenetic systematics, social and economic sciences, urban ecology, oceanography, mathematics, computer science, and science education. The existence of a network across sites allows for continental-scale questions to be addressed.

LTER is recognized internationally as one of the best organized and most successful groups conducting research in ecology. Not only has the program pioneered the development of data sets to study the processes taking place over long time periods at multiple sites, it has also provided a new paradigm for networking, data management, and efficient allocation of limited resources.

Funding and Support

The LTER Network receives its greatest funding from NSF, but other Federal agencies such as the USDA Forest Service and Agricultural Research Services, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the US Geological Survey, the US Environmental Protection Agency, and the US Department of the Interior’s National Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service also support various projects at site and network levels.

Funding is given by NSF in the form of renewable six-year grants, which are independently peer-reviewed and are renewed based on the soundness of science and network participation. NSF conducts rigorous reviews of sites at the midpoint of each grant cycle, as well as a comprehensive review of the entire Network every 10 years.

In receiving funding from NSF, LTER agrees to conduct research on comparable ecological processes; make data accessible to the broader scientific community using common data management protocols; participate in cross-site and cross-agency research; and participate in network level and science synthesis activities.

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