BES Annual Report 2017: Part 1 – What Have We Been Up To?

Major Goals of BES

The Baltimore Ecosystem Study (BES) conducts research on metropolitan Baltimore as an ecological system. Focus on urban systems is important for several reasons. First, they are a novel ecosystem type which has been neglected during most of the history of ecology in the United States. As such, they contain 1) a variety of constructed and highly managed components and substrates; 2) altered climates, environmental resources, stresses, and signals, 3) unprecedented mixtures of species including exotic invasives and; 4) human intention and perception, individual and institutional decision making, and built and social legacies.
Second, the novel combinations of factors, and their changing relationships over time, can expose new mechanisms controlling ecosystem function. From a pure science perspective, the novel conditions allow ecologists to evaluate the understanding of ecosystem structure and function generated from study of non-urban systems. There is still much to discover at the interface of the ecological and the urban.
Finally, urban systems are an increasingly important ecosystem type at continental and global scales. In the United States some 84% of the population resides in officially designated urban areas, and globally more than 50% reside in such places. These percentages are increasing, and the area affected by urban cover, economy, social values, and byproducts is increasing disproportionately (Buijs et al. 2010, Merrifield 2014). 
Thus, BES contributes to 1) the fundamental understanding of a novel ecosystem type, 2) exposing how different mechanisms control the structure and function of the ecosystem through experiments, opportunistic environmental disturbances, and social interventions over time, and 3) generating knowledge that is increasingly relevant as urbanization continues to spread and intensity over time. 

Urban LTER Core Areas

BES generates data using long-term comparative and experimental approaches, and pursues synthesis via conceptual frameworks, quantitative simulation, and statistical prediction. BES research addresses the five original core areas of the Long-Term Ecological Research Network as articulated in 1980 (, in addition to the three specific kinds of human effects and human-environment interactions called for in by the 1997 urban LTER request for proposals:
  1. Primary Production 
  2. Population Studies 
  3. Movement of Organic Matter 
  4. Movement of Inorganic Matter
  5. Disturbance Patterns 
  6. Human impact on land use and land-cover change;
  7. Land use and land-cover effects on ecosystem dynamics;
  8. Integrated approaches to human-environment interactions.
The specifically urban core areas, appearing in items six through eight above, are extracted from the 1997 RFP, quoted here:
“In addition to the traditional LTER core areas, an Urban LTER will:
·        examine the human impact on land use and land-cover change in urban systems and relate these effects to ecosystem dynamics,
·        monitor the effects of human-environmental interactions in urban systems, develop appropriate tools (such as GIS) for data collection and analysis of socio-economic and ecosystem data, and develop integrated approaches to linking human and natural systems in an urban ecosystem environment, and
·        integrate research with local K-12 educational systems.”
The first two of the additional core areas actually identify several, more specific research mandates. We have broken the first new item into two, because it suggests complementary causal models involving land cover: change versus effect. The requirement for examining human-environment interaction also embodies specific concerns with new data sources and analytic tools, and a focus on integrating the human and natural components of urban ecosystems. 
To satisfy these requirements, the urban LTERs necessarily have additional and compound core research areas, beyond the five traditional ones that the LTER program has required since 1980. The final item requires a specific channel for engaging with the local community and institutions. 
The mandate of the urban LTERs, encompassing eight core research areas, demands a social-ecological approach rather than a strictly ecological approach (Grove and Burch 1997, Collins et al. 2000, Redman et al. 2004). A biological ecosystem exists in a specified area or volume of the Earth, and consists of a biotic component, a physical component, and the interactions between those two components. The concept also recognizes that some fluxes can move across the ecosystem boundary. 
To apply the ecosystem concept to urban systems, that is those that occupy extensive combinations of cities, suburbs, and exurbs, a component consisting of human and social processes and structures must be added (Naveh 2000, Pickett and Grove 2009). Perhaps the most cogent way to accomplish this addition is to focus on the decisions that people and institutions make about where to locate and build, and how to manage the constructed and biological features of an urban ecosystem or landscape. 

Three Major Research Foci

The larger goals, the conceptual frameworks they require, and the empirical complexity of urban ecosystems have prompted BES research to adopt three major, linked foci: 
1) the flux of materials and energy; 
2) the organization of biotic communities; and 
3) the locational and management decisions by people and institutions. 
The eight core areas for urban LTERs are distributed across these three foci. The foci are one tool by which data gathering is integrated in habitat-based research or shared, cross disciplinary sampling regimes. In addition, integration is accomplished by eco-hydrological modeling, agent based social and economic modeling, and Bayesian network analysis. 
In the next post, we will present some of the key activities undertaken over the past year that serve the goals of the project.