During the first decade and a half of the development of the systems ecology paradigm (SEP) most research efforts were placed on learning about how the biophysical realms of ecosystems function and how simulation models could aid gaining that understanding. Missing from that research were the obvious connections of humans as components of ecosystems, not simply as controllers. In 1981 the US National Science Foundation (NSF) Programs Ecosystems Studies and Anthropology funded the South Turkana Ecosystem Project. It was the first time that an ecosystem study had included the human component as a full actor in an ecosystem. The NSF has since created the Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems program, the sole purpose of which is to fund these types of projects. The human side of SEP has grown in other directions as well including, agro-ecosystem ecology, understanding ecosystem services and effects of land fragmentation, Citizen Science, and providing guidance to the management of natural and human-dominated systems and the improvement of human welfare. Ongoing research has led to the realization that the human residents of the ecosystems under study can engage with research scientists to co-create knowledge about the operation of their own systems.
Ecosystem modeling, a pillar of the systems ecology paradigm (SEP), addresses questions such as, how much carbon and nitrogen are cycled within ecological sites, landscapes, or indeed the earth system? Or how are human activities modifying these flows? Modeling, when coupled with field and laboratory studies, represents the essence of the SEP in that they embody accumulated knowledge and generate hypotheses to test understanding of ecosystem processes and behavior. Initially, ecosystem models were primarily used to improve our understanding about how biophysical aspects of ecosystems operate. However, current ecosystem models are widely used to make accurate predictions about how large-scale phenomena such as climate change and management practices impact ecosystem dynamics and assess potential effects of these changes on economic activity and policy making. In sum, ecosystem models embedded in the SEP remain our best mechanism to integrate diverse types of knowledge regarding how the earth system functions and to make quantitative predictions that can be confronted with observations of reality. Modeling efforts discussed are the Century ecosystem model, DayCent ecosystem model, Grassland Ecosystem Model ELM, food web models, Savanna model, agent-based and coupled systems modeling, and Bayesian modeling.
Fundamental knowledge about the processes that control the functioning of the biophysical workings of ecosystems has expanded exponentially since the late 1960s. Scientists, then, had only primitive knowledge about C, N, P, S, and H2O cycles; plant, animal, and soil microbial interactions and dynamics; and land, atmosphere, and water interactions. With the advent of systems ecology paradigm (SEP) and the explosion of technologies supporting field and laboratory research, scientists throughout the world were able to assemble the knowledge base known today as ecosystem science. This chapter describes, through the eyes of scientists associated with the Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory (NREL) at Colorado State University (CSU), the evolution of the SEP in discovering how biophysical systems at small scales (ecological sites, landscapes) function as systems. The NREL and CSU are epicenters of the development of ecosystem science. Later, that knowledge, including humans as components of ecosystems, has been applied to small regions, regions, and the globe. Many research results that have formed the foundation for ecosystem science and management of natural resources, terrestrial environments, and its waters are described in this chapter. Throughout are direct and implicit references to the vital collaborations with the global network of ecosystem scientists.
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