Understanding Earth's biological systems

February 27, 2009

As a result of global climate change, Earth and its systems are undergoing rapid alterations. To adapt to changes happening at unprecedented rates, according to scientists, we must study how the interrelated geosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere interact with each other.

In the 21st century, we will make the choices that affect the most basic relationships between humans and the planet on which we live, say James Collins, National Science Foundation (NSF) assistant director for biological sciences, and Tim Killeen, NSF assistant director for geosciences.

How will we accommodate our needs, while maintaining the functions of the natural systems on which the future of the globe, and with it our existence, depend?

The challenge will be met, in large part, through basic research, Collins and Killeen state.

To further our understanding of Earth's biogeochemical cycles, including the water cycle, and to develop environmental models that link local, regional and global scales, NSF's directorates for biological sciences (BIO) and geosciences (GEO) have announced a focus on interdisciplinary research that bridges the biological sciences and geosciences.

The directorates have issued Dear Colleague letters to the scientific community encouraging increased research in the areas of multi-scale modeling and emerging topics in biogeochemical cycles.

Especially sought are projects, to be jointly supported by core programs in BIO and GEO, that focus on the interactions and thresholds in climate, ecological and/or hydrologic systems.

"The goal is to increase our understanding of how biological systems respond to changing physical and chemical conditions," says Collins, "and how biological systems influence the physical and chemical characteristics of soils and sediments, air and water."

Adds Killeen, "These emerging and challenging problems require integration of concepts and observations across diverse fields. Projects funded via these Dear Colleague letters have the potential to dramatically improve our understanding of how small- and large-scale processes lead to 'tipping points,' such as those in Earth's climate system."

Projects will develop theoretical foundations for the modeling and simulation of existing data, and data collected by the new and envisioned NSF environmental observatories, such as the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI), EarthScope, Critical Zone Observatories and others.

The information will be used to predict what will happen on Earth in the years and decades ahead.

In order to adapt to a changing world, and to mitigate changes that have already occurred, such knowledge, say Killeen and Collins, is critical.

National Science Foundation

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