2009 Working Groups

2009 ECI Working Groups

Conservation Medicine

DESCRIPTION: Organized by Kate Smith, Assistant Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Mark Lurie, Assistant Professor of Community Health, the conservation medicine working group sponsored a series of guest speakers (including Craig Packer, Kevin Laffery, Linda Amaral-Zettler and Rebecca Hardin), a bi-weekly discussion group, and a research symposium.

OUTCOME: This year-long activity solidified a group of faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates working across departments and divisions to understand the interactions of ecosystem, human, and wildlife health and led to the formation of Brown's Conservation Medicine group.

Amazon Cropland Frontier

DESCRIPTION: Organized by Chris Neill, senior scientist at the Ecosystem Center of the Marine Biological Laboratory, and Leah VanWey, associate professor of sociology, the amazon cropland frontiers working group is collecting pilot data on the factors that influence land use decisions by agricultural landowners at the edge of the Amazon forest and how those decisions affect water quality, air pollution, soil erosion, and fire risk. More>>

OUTCOMES: The Amazon Cropland Frontier working group met for about a year, developing project and proposal concepts.

  • Ultimately, the group submitted a successful proposal to the National Science Foundation PIRE program (Partnerships in International Research and Education) for project working on marginal lands in Africa. PIRE: Land Use, Ecosystem Services and Human Wellbeing.
  • Another proposal to NASA - Rates and Drivers of Land Use Land Cover Change in the Agricultural Frontier of Mato Grosso, Brazil, led by Leah VanWey and Jack Mustard, also grew out of the working group.
  • A successful proposal to the International Affairs Seed fund is launching new work on The Socioeconomic Impacts of "Green" Energy in the Amazon.

Climate Envelopes

DESCRIPTION: Species can adapt to a changing climate by moving the geographic range in which they live or through genetic and behavioral responses to an altered growing season. Current predictions of species ranges under climate change usually consider these two factors separately but each depends strongly on the other. Regan Early and Amity Wilczek, both postdoctoral fellows, have received funding through ECI to write a review paper summarizing the available knowledge regarding phenological adaptation to climate change and how species distribution model (SDM) predictions might be altered by inclusion of phenological data.

OUTCOMES: Early, R. and Sax, D.F. (2011) Analysis of climate paths reveals potential limitations on species range shifts. Ecology Letters 14: 1125-1133. Faculty of 1000 – recommended article.

Phenology and Climate Change

DESCRIPTION:Understanding the seasonal timing (phenology) of biological events such as bud burst, dormancy, flowering time, and fruit set is crucial for understanding ecosystem structure, function, services, and their response to climate change. For example, Zhang et al. (2007) have observed significant changes in the timing of vegetation greenup induced by recent warming. On the other hand, phenological shifts also feedback to the climate system through changing the global carbon cycle and energy balance. The lengthened growing season may increase photosynthetic carbon uptake. At the same time, increased temperature may increase respiratory carbon emissions. Earlier snow melting and bud burst may alter water cycles and surface albedo. These shifts in the timing, length, and pattern of feedbacks may trigger the change of the whole system, including physical events (e.g. ocean and atmospheric circulation and fluxes and precipitation pattern), biological events (e.g., species composition, migration, food web, competition, etc.), and human activities (e.g., crop harvest, forest yield, etc.).

Remote sensing data on vegetation phenology are available at a range of scales and are being used to test climatic phenology models. The development of the USA National Phenology network (http://www.usanpn.org/) provides new opportunities to access diverse data sets across scales. 

This working group is organized by Jim Tang, assistant scientist in the Ecosystems Center at the Marine Biological Laboratory; Johanna Schmitt, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and director of the Environmental Change Initiative; and Jack Mustard, professor of geological sciences. ECI funds will support a one-day workshop exploring opportunities to integrate the study of phenology across multiple scales from genomic through microbial to ecosystem, regional, and global scales.


  • The phenology working group met regularly throughout 2009, exploring possible joint projects. the collaboration has led to:
  • A graduate seminar, Plants in a Changing Planet, taught by Johanna Schmitta and Amity Wilczek, with guest lectures by Jim Tang
  • An Ideas and Perspectives article in Evolutionary Ecology: Identifying potential evolutionary consequences of climate-driven phenological shifts, by graduate students Matt Heard, Shelby Riskin, and Patrick Flight
  • A pilot project installing phenology-observing cameras in Oak forest on Martha's Vineyard
  • A successful OVPR Seed fund proposal to study comparative phenology and carbon cycling in the northeastern US and in comparable ecosystems in China

Climate Variability

In between “weather” and “climate” lie a number of climate phenomena that cause departures in temperature and rainfall from average values.  The best-known examples of these anomalies are the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and North Atlantic Oscillation (timescales of 4-7 years and 8-15 years, respectively). The presence of climate anomalies on this time scale affect planning decisions: what appear to be trends over several years and perhaps decades may in fact be part of a natural (and only partially predictable) cycle which will return to another state shortly.

Jim Russell, an assistant professor of geological sciences is taking the lead on a working group that will develop a one-day workshop evaluating the potential for social-natural science collaborations on several related questions:

Is the spectrum of variability tilted toward rare but powerful events?

How do variable conditions (freeze-thaw cycles, wet-dry cycles) change ecosystem feedbacks and human decision making? How much climate variability is internal to the climate system (El Niño) vs. externally caused (volcanic eruptions)? Some regions have inherently higher degrees of climate variability, and this variability may not match well to social resilience. How might policymakers assess and mitigate the risks associated with this mismatch? How do human perceptions of risk and variability affect their ability to respond effectively to a changing climate?

OUTCOMES: The ECI Climate Variability working group contributed to a variety of outcomes tying together climate, water and variability. These include a BIARI on Water in a Changing Climate in 2011 and a  2013 signature academic initiative proposal that was incorporated into the Environment and Society Proposal.

Coastal Zones

Understanding the coupling between highly dynamic coastal ecosystems and human behavior and policy at the local scale is a major challenge. Heather Leslie, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and environmental studies is working with Linda Deegan, senior scientist in the Ecosystems Center at the Marine Biological Laboratory, and Michael White, director of the Populations Studies and Training Center and professor of sociology, to develop a one-day workshop exploring how the distribution and behavior of coastal zone residents affects the functioning and resilience of coastal ecosystems.