A System of Systems
In the summer of 2001, dark blankets of rotting mussels stretched across the Rhode Island coastline. Two years later, silvery waves of dead fish washed ashore. In both cases, the killers were large, oxygen-starved “dead zones”—areas where nitrogen and other nutrients from agricultural runoff and wastewater treatment outfalls trigger large blooms of algae, which suck oxygen out of the water upon decomposing. It’s a lethal trend that’s spreading through the world’s coastal waters.
To understand, predict, and possibly slow the growth of dead zones, which can stretch for thousands of miles, one must study the interactions of several complicated natural systems ranging from the microscopic intricacies of nutrients and bacteria to human land use across continents to global weather patterns, all of which are constantly in flux. Indeed, while scientists have traditionally built their careers on specialized research, they are increasingly realizing that addressing any major environmental issue requires interdisciplinary expertise and tons of data. That’s what prompted Mark Friedl, professor of geography and environment, and a diverse steering committee of other BU researchers to host an Earth Systems Forum earlier this year.
“In terms of what’s happening to the planet in a contemporary sense, humans are really driving the bus.” Mark Friedl
“The Earth is a system of systems,” says Friedl. For example, he says, you can’t study the Earth’s climate just by studying the atmosphere. “You have to understand how ecosystems affect the atmosphere through things like the carbon cycle, and you have to think about how the Earth’s surface and the oceans affect the atmosphere.”
The goal of the forum was to introduce BU scientists to others working on similar questions from different vantage points, and to identify opportunities for the University to build on existing disciplinary strengths, faculty expertise, and facilities to foster a more comprehensive study of our changing planet.
“These are big topics and big questions, and a lot of institutions are working on them,” says Friedl. “So it’s important that we think about our unique strengths and potential.”
At the forum, researchers made presentations about the satellite data capabilities of BU’s Center for Remote Sensing and the computational modeling and atmospheric expertise from the Center for Integrated Space Weather Modeling. Later, faculty affiliated with BU’s Marine Program and the Center for Global Health & Development spoke about the growing human impact on natural systems.
People can’t be treated as separate from “the environment,” says Friedl. “In terms of what’s happening to the planet in a contemporary sense, humans are really driving the bus.”
And our impact will only intensify. The world’s population (currently about 7 billion) is projected to hit 9 billion by 2050 and 10 billion by the end of the century, according to the United Nations. Computational modeling will be critical to projecting the environmental effects of that growth and to assessing a full range of costs and benefits for proposed government policies and interventions—be it limiting the days fishermen can fish, restoring habitat, or curbing emissions.
It’s data-heavy work, and a third group of forum presentations focused on BU’s Center for Computational Science, the Scientific Computing & Visualization group, the Rafik B. Hariri Institute for Computing and Computational Science & Engineering, and sensor technology being developed at the College of Engineering.
The forum also highlighted two recent initiatives showing that BU is well positioned to be a leader in Earth systems research. The first is a two-year exploratory grant from the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Forest Service to study Boston as an Urban Long-Term Research Area (ULTRA). BU’s ULTRA research team is studying the city’s “urban metabolism” by measuring and modeling carbon and energy flows throughout the metropolitan area.
The second initiative highlighted at the forum began last spring when BU launched a new PhD Certificate Program in Terrestrial Biogeosciences, which draws students from the Departments of Earth Sciences, Biology, and Geography & Environment. In addition to the requirements of their departments, students in this program complete a yearlong seminar and practicum led by faculty whose research focuses on terrestrial ecosystems, carbon, water, and nutrient cycling.
The director of the Terrestrial Biogeosciences Program, Adrien Finzi, an associate professor of biology, says the program will help BU stake a claim on the new National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), a nationwide web of observatories and sensor arrays, and other equipment to gather continuous data on the soil, air, water, vegetation, microbes, and animals in the United States, split up into 20 “eco-climate domains.”
“NEON’s mission is to make regional and continental-scale observations and measurements of ecosystems. And they want scientists to ask regional and continental-sized questions,” says Finzi, who focuses on forest ecosystems and their ability to take up and process atmospheric carbon.
Friedl notes that to advance strong interdisciplinary initiatives, faculty commitment is key. “The next stage is to figure out where the energy and enthusiasm are and what the capacity is to move the study of Earth systems to the next level.”