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National Science Foundation
NSF-Wide Investment - Biocomplexity in the Environment
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The image above is from a numerical simulation of an idealized wind-driven ocean basin. Such computations allow a better understanding of the Earth’s climate system.
Credit: Jeffrey B. Weiss, University of Colorado at Boulder
Image - caption below  

Gray Treefrog, Hyla versicolor commonly found in the NE United States. Reports about the decline of frogs and toads in pristine environments such as nature reserves and parks
greatly concerns ecologists who look at amphibians as an indicator species, warning of environmental stress. Credit: Joseph Kiesecker, Penn State University

Image - caption below  

An anemone fish hides from predators in the tentacles of an anemone living in a coral reef in the waters of Fiji.
Credit: MacGillivray




To understand complex environmental systems in which the dynamic behavior of living organisms is linked to the physical and chemical processes of the environment.

The world faces significant scientific and societal challenges, including the prospect of rapid environmental and climatic change, and the complicated question of long-term environmental security. The integrity of ecosystems is inextricably linked to human well-being. Fundamental study of complex environmental systems is critical to developing new ways to anticipate environmental conditions and improve environmental decision-making.

Potential Impact

  • A better understanding of natural processes, human behaviors and decisions in the natural world, and ways to use new technology effectively for environmental sustainability
  • Improved forecasting capabilities
  • Enhanced understanding of environmental decision-making
  • Novel sensor systems and instrumentation
  • A more comprehensive understanding of the ecology of infectious diseases
  • Improved environmental education

Example: Complexity of Aquatic Food Webs
Organic carbon, a building block of life, is essential to aquatic food webs. In lakes, aquatic plants produce organic carbon by harnessing the sunís energy through photosynthesis. Some of this carbon supports the growth of fish and invertebrate populations. Scientists have long suspected that organic carbon from land affects aquatic life, but the idea is difficult to demonstrate. By tracing the fate of carbon through large-scale lake manipulations, scientists have revealed that terrestrial organic carbon significantly subsidizes the aquatic food web in some waters. To reach this conclusion, researchers used an ingenious method of teasing apart the carbon cycle of lakes. They found that the vegetation around a body of water can have profound impacts on the animal life within the body of water. This blurs the perceived ecological boundaries between aquatic and terrestrial systems. The results have implications for the complexity needed in predictive models for watershed management.

Long-Term Goals

  • Synthesize environmental knowledge across disciplines, systems, time and space
  • Discover new methods, models and theories to understand complex environmental systems
  • Develop new tools and innovative applications of technologies for interdisciplinary environmental research
  • Integrate human, societal and ecological factors into investigations of the physical environment and environmental engineering
  • Improve science-based forecasting capabilities and enhancing research on decision-making behaviors
  • Advance a broad range of infrastructure to support interdisciplinary environmental activities, including collaboratory networks, information systems, research platforms, international partnerships and educational activities

FY 2006 Areas of Emphasis

  • Earth Systems, Cycles and Pathways
  • Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems
  • Materials Use: Science, Engineering and Society
  • Microbial Genome Sequencing
  • Ecology of Infectious Diseases

In addition to these primary areas, other multidisciplinary activities will use a synthetic approach to understanding complex environmental systems. These include

  • Integration Activities for Sensor Networks and Observing Systems
  • Environmental Genomics
  • Molecular Scale Studies
  • Educational Activities
  • International Partnerships

Related Resources

Current Competition

Biocomplexity in the Environment Fact Sheet

"Solving the Biocomplexity Puzzle," from NSF's America's Investment in the Future (NSF 00-50)

Biocomplexity in the Environment in FY 2006 Budget Request (pages 399-403)