LTER Key Research Findings

Among the many research results from LTER sites, some findings stand out as being particularly important to achieve the LTER goal of providing information to conserve, protect, and manage the nation's ecosystems. Short descriptions of key findings at each site emphasize the importance of long-term data in understanding the pace and pattern of ecological change.

Ability To Restore (JRN LTER)
Desertified shrublands on degraded soils are believed to be very persistent, yet the need for services from these systems has led to numerous attempts to restore them to grassland state, often with little success. Much of the early restoration research (pre-1970s) at the JRN focused on agronomic approaches for shrub control and grass recovery. Over the decades, numerous trials of various...
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Watersheds as Laboratories (HBR LTER)
Watersheds are hydrologic units of the landscape which process water entering as precipitation, resulting in storage or loses through evapotranspiration, groundwater drainage, or stream runoff. In addition to water quantity, precipitation inputs and drainage losses transport nutrients to and from watersheds, and can be important components of nutrient dynamics of ecosystems. Small watersheds (12...
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Sea Level Rise (GCE LTER)
Global climate change is predicted to cause extensive changes in the earth's ecosystems. Sea level rise (SLR) currently averages 3 mm yr-1, but is expected to accelerate over the coming century. Some of the habitats most vulnerable to SLR are tidal wetlands, which exist at the interface between land and sea. Decades of research at the Georgia Coastal Ecosystems (GCE) LTER has shown that coastal...
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New Ecological Theory (CAP LTER)
For most of ecology's history as a discipline, the focus of study was on pristine, wildland sites. Urban areas were seen as human-disturbed places less worthy of investigation. Urban ecology experienced a paradigm shift in the latter part of the 20th century, when it began to focus on the structure and function of cities as ecosystems. The establishment of two long-term ecological research sites...
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New Climate Pattern (CCE LTER)
Research in the CCE LTER site led to the discovery of a new mode of climate variability that has been named the North Pacific Gyre Oscillation (NPGO, Di Lorenzo et al. 2008). The NPGO was initially uncovered through the analysis of a computer model of ocean circulation, developed to reproduce and diagnose long-term climate measurements in the North Pacific. The study revealed variation in sea...
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Fire and Climate (BNZ LTER)
Plant ecologists working with the Bonanza Creek LTER program in Alaska have found that fire effects on soil organic layer depths is a key factor in the disruption of stable patterns of conifer dominance in the boreal forest. Plant-soil-microbial (PSM) feedbacks between vascular plants, mosses, and microbial decomposition maintain deep organic soils in black spruce forests and wetlands of Interior...
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For the People, By the People (BES LTER)
Conventional wisdom often holds that concern for the environmental is concentrated among residents of wealthier and predominantly white communities who can afford to make quality of life issues, such as environmental quality, a high priority. Poorer, ethnically mixed communities are assumed to be more preoccupied with satisfying basic needs than with protecting the environment. This conventional...
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Importance of Bottom Dwellers (VCR LTER)
Shallow coastal ecosystems are highly sensitive to rapid changes in population and land use occurring in the coastal zone. Nutrients associated with sewage, fertilizer, and other by-products of anthropogenic development flow from streams, rivers, and groundwater aquifers into coastal waters. As a result, the rate of nutrient loading to coastal bays is directly related to agricultural, forest, and...
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Dynamic Coastal Landscapes (VCR LTER)
Coastal landscapes are among the most vulnerable to changing climate conditions. Periodic, extreme storm events, superimposed over background conditions of gradual sea-level rise, can force dramatic changes in these geographically marginal, unprotected systems. The redistribution of sediment by waves and currents is typically the driving force behind these changes. For instance, storm waves...
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Wave Impact (SBC LTER)
Scientists have long debated over which of two factors, resource availability (also called "bottom-up") or consumer pressure ("top-down"), holds more sway in controlling the structure and dynamics of natural communities. This debate has been more ardent in discussions about the shallow marine systems dominated by large kelps along the California coast. Scientists generally acknowledge that...
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Modeling Microbial Chemistry (PIE LTER)
Scientists understand quite well how chemicals react to produce new compounds, such as when oxygen mixes with natural gas and burns to produce carbon dioxide plus water, but as soon as biology is added to the chemical milieu, the task of predicting what chemical reactions will occur and how quickly remains a great challenge. Primitive organisms, such as bacteria and other microscope life, are at...
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Salinity and Nitrogen (PIE LTER)
Primary production in most estuaries and coastal marine waters is limited by the availability of nitrogen. Therefore, understanding nitrogen cycling is critical to predicting how coastal systems will respond to an increased delivery of nutrients from land. While nitrogen is an essential element, an over abundance of nitrogen leads to algal blooms and hypoxia in estuarine and coastal ecosystems....
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Scale Matters (PIE LTER)
By conducting large scale, long-term studies of entire river-estuary networks, PIE scientists revealed ways that human activities and natural processes interact to control the flow of water and nutrients from the land to the ocean. This science helps to guide the reduction of harmful nitrogen pollution in coastal waters. A myriad of human activities alter the hydrology and biogeochemistry of...
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Changes in Ice and Heat (PAL LTER)
Changes in sea ice reflect changes in atmospheric and ocean circulation and properties, while the changing seasonality of sea ice plays a predominant role in controlling much of the polar marine ecosystem. Since the late 1970s satellites have allowed us to track sea ice changes from space. For example, using long term satellite data we can determine the length of the ice season by tracking...
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Delicate Conditions (PAL LTER)
The PAL study region along the western Antarctic Peninsula is one of the most rapidly warming places on the planet (see bullet 2), and the ecosystem is responding to the rapid climate warming. PAL observations of the Antarctic marine foodweb started in 1990, but some changes are just now becoming apparent. Antarctic foodchains are traditionally believed to be short and simple, efficiently...
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Science, Scenarios and Surprise (NTL LTER)
Ecological forecasting and long-term ecological research are synergistic. Long-term data are essential for calibrating models, and forecasts are hypotheses to be tested by long-term research. Existing models are limited in scope. Generally they provide predictions of biological, biogeochemical or physical trajectories of ecosystems, given specified inputs including human actions....
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Managing Water Quality in a Changing World (NTL LTER)
Eutrophication, the over-enrichment of lakes and rivers with nutrients, causes toxic algae blooms, deoxygenation, foul odors, fish kills, and heavy economic losses to communities that depend on clean water for drinking, industrial use, or recreation. The fix-up sounds simple: stop adding nutrients to the water. However, lakes and rivers are embedded in complex systems of people and nature,...
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Plants and Fuel (CDR LTER)
Experimental studies by Cedar Creek scientists revealed that high-diversity mixtures of perennial prairie plants grown on nutrient-poor lands with no fertilization or irrigation have potential for use as a biofuel crop. Such a crop could offers many advantages over food-crop based biofuels, including net carbon storage, lower land use requirements, and reduced particulate emissions. The search...
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Ecological Homogenization (CDR LTER)
Neighborhoods across biophysically different regions have similar patterns of development leading to ecological homogenization of basic neighborhood structure and residential yards more ecologically similar to yards across the nation than to their respective nearby natural areas. Fewer lineages of plants occur spontaneously in urban environments than in natural areas, and urban plants are...
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Biodiversity Matters (CDR LTER)
Cedar Creek scientists discovered that the number of plant species in an ecosystem – its biodiversity – has a profound effect on ecosystem function. Long-term experiments show ecosystems with greater plant biodiversity are more productive and stable, and better able to soak up more of our carbon dioxide emissions as well. Moreover, the value of diversity grew over time in two long-term...
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Early Warning Signs (NWT LTER)
NWT research indicates that alpine ecosystems provide important early warning signs of global climate change. Alpine plants and animals survive on the razor's edge of environmental tolerances, making them more sensitive to changes in climate than downstream ecosystems. Signs of stress in the American pika: The hamster-sized American pika or "rock rabbit" is an icon of rocky landscapes that...
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