Symposium: Discovering the Nature of Ecosystem Change


Even as sea-level rise, drought, and fire increase pressures on some ecological systems, others are benefitting from protection and restoration efforts. But some changes are not reversible. Long-term research employs observations of past changes, together with long-running experiments and modeling to understand the processes responsible for sustaining ecological functions. Drawing on concrete examples and new ecological theory, five researchers from across the Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) Network describe science that can help discern which changes may allow for recovery and which are more likely to irreversibly transform ecological systems. Posters describing ongoing LTER research and samples of the LTER children’s book series will be on display throughout the morning. To attend, please RSVP to Cheryl Dybas, NSF Public Affairs (, at least 24 hours in advance.

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Learn more about the talks:


Plausible Freshwater Futures: Yahara Watershed, Wisconsin, USA

Plausible freshwater futures: Yahara watershed, Wisconsin, USA

Talk Description:

Scenarios can help communities think about alternative futures, but using them to drive decisions requires data. In Wisconsin’s Yahara Watershed, researchers are combining data and modelling from the Northern Temperate lakes LTER with qualitative scenarios based on trends and events from the global scenarios literature and stakeholder perspectives. The resulting assessments can help guide decisions about changing land and water use in ways that meet needs for human wellbeing, conserve the capacity of environments to provide services (such as water quality, quantity, and agricultural production), and build resiliency for unpredictable changes in climate or other environmental drivers.


Christopher Kucharik, University of Wisconsin–Madison, Northern Temperate Lakes LTER

aerial of Yahara watershed in Wisconsin


Legacy Of Acid Rain: A Tale Of Two Species

Legacy of acid rain: A tale of two species

Talk Description:

Air pollution control efforts have succeeded in reducing sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions, but decades of acid rain have leached calcium and magnesium from Northeastern forest soils. These changes have increased the mobility of dissolved organic matter, and possibly altered soil organic matter dynamics, altering the long-term trajectory for forest ecosystems. What does the acid rain story say about when, where, and how recovery is possible?


Charles Driscoll, Syracuse University, Hubbard Brook LTER

weir located at Hubbard Brook

Fire And Ice: Carbon Cycling Feedbacks To Climate In A Warming Arctic

Fire and ice: Carbon cycling feedbacks to climate in a warming Arctic

Talk Description:

About 30% of global carbon stocks reside in the vegetation and deep, carbon-rich soils of Arctic tundra and boreal forest biomes. Wildfires—which are becoming more frequent with warmer and drier weather in the Arctic—have the potential to either stabilize or accelerate regional and global warming through carbon feedbacks. By comparing the impact of fire in the boreal forests of Interior Alaska, where fire has been common for the past 10,000 years, with Alaska’s North Slope, where fire is a novel disturbance, researchers are understanding the ways that fire interacts with plant species composition, nutrient availability, and permafrost integrity to influence ecological and climate stability.


Michelle Mack, Northern Arizona University, Bonanza Creek LTER

Arctic wildfire

Beyond Desertification: New Models For State Change In Drylands

Beyond desertification: New models for state change in drylands

Talk Description:

One of the classic state-change stories is that over-grazing and drought turn grasslands into shrubby, degraded landscapes. Land managers strive to avoid such irreversible changes, using strategies based on models of how ecosystems change. But misapplication of models can lead to poor management outcomes. Researchers at the Jornada Basin LTER site and its host the USDA Jornada Experimental Range have developed a new model of desert grassland ecosystem dynamics that is grounded in long-term data and experiments indicating possible trajectories. Even after abrupt vegetation change, gradual recovery appears to be possible–sometimes along unexpected pathways–as long as critical thresholds in species abundance and soil erosion rates are not crossed.


Brandon Bestelmeyer, USDA-Agricultural Research Service, Jornada Basin LTER

desert landscape in the Chihuahuan desert

Climate-Resilient Coasts: How Long-term Research And Restoration Informs Management

Climate-Resilient Coasts: How long-term research and restoration informs management

Talk Description:

Coastal habitats are the first line of defense against sea-level rise and storms. At the same time, they are vulnerable to change, and can be pushed past tipping points and lost. A long-term, landscape-scale experiment with seagrass at Virginia Coast Reserve LTER is the first of its kind to show the role of restoration in reinstating ecosystem services, particularly ‘blue carbon’ sequestration. Fifteen years of data on recovery trajectories, thresholds, and resilience to high ocean temperatures provide novel insights that are integrated into predictive models of future change and inform management and policy.


Karen McGlathery, University of Virginia, Virginia Coast Reserve LTER

left aerial photo of Virginia Coast Line. Right closeup of scallops on seagrass

Dr. Brandon Bestelmeyer

Dr. Brandon Bestelmeyer

portrait of Dr. Brandon BestelmeyerBrandon Bestelmeyer is research leader and ecologist at the USDA Agricultural Research Service, Jornada Experimental Range and a co-PI of the Jornada Basin Long-Term Ecological Research site at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, New Mexico. His research focuses on tipping points, strategies to promote resilience, and restoration in rangeland ecosystems. This work emphasize collaborations with governmental and non-governmental organizations to use ecological science in rangeland decision-making, including the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Bureau of Land Management, the Malpai Borderlands Group, the Mongolian government, and agricultural agencies in Argentina. He obtained an M.S. in Zoology and Ph.D in Ecology at Colorado State University and Bachelor’s degrees in Biological Sciences and Applied Ecology at University of California, Irvine.

Dr. Karen McGlathery

Dr. Karen McGlathery

portrait of Dr. Karen McGlatheryKaren McGlathery is a Professor of Environmental Sciences at the University of Virginia.  A specialist on effects of environmental change, including climate, sea-level rise, eutrophication and species invasions in coastal marine ecosystems, she has co-authored over 80 articles in journals including Nature, Limnology and Oceanography, Marine Ecology Progress Series, and Oceanography.  Her most recent research at the Virginia Coast Reserve Long Term Ecological Research (VCR LTER) program focuses on the role of large-scale habitat restoration in the provision of ecosystem services, including carbon sequestration.  In addition to Virginia’s Eastern Shore, the graduate students in her lab have worked in coastal systems in New England, Florida, Bermuda, New Zealand and Mozambique.

McGlathery is an Associate Editor of the journal Ecosystems, and has served as a Guest Editor for the journal Oceanography.  She was a member of the National Science Foundation Committee of Visitors on Centers of Excellence for Research in Science and Technology.

McGlathery received her B.S. from Connecticut College and her Ph.D. from Cornell University.  Before coming to UVA in 1996, she was a Research Associate at the University of Copenhagen and the National Environmental Research Institute in Denmark. Since 2004, McGlathery has served as Director of the Virginia Coast Reserve Long Term Ecological Research program, based at UVA’s Anheuser-Busch Coastal Research Center on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.  

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