Previous Research

Since 1995, over 600 working groups have tackled critical questions across a variety of environmental themes to help advance knowledge and solutions. Here is a sampling of their discoveries by theme, or view our full project archive.


Our Research Approach

Humanity’s social and ecological challenges have become so complex and intertwined that they require interdisciplinary, collaborative knowledge and response, rather than individual research or action. NCEAS does not rely on permanent research faculty. Our innovation stems from a global network of thousands of researchers. Through open Calls for Proposals NCEAS solicits project ideas for collaborative Working Groups focused on the most pressing environmental questions. Rather than collecting new data in the laboratory or field, NCEAS adds value by integrating existing datasets and models, and combining different perspectives and methods, to create new scientific insights. NCEAS has earned a reputation as one of the most productive and impactful science institutions in the world, delivering impartial science to address critical decisions on global environmental issues.


NCEAS Calls for Proposals

NCEAS engages the scientific community in collaborative, synthetic research through Calls for Proposals, joint project proposals, and self-funded working group meetings. You can receive notices for new Calls for Proposals by: Subscribing to NCEAS News, or Following NCEAS on Twitter (@nceas) or Checking for the orange Call for Proposals box on the NCEAS homepage.

Call for Proposals

NCEAS periodically issues open Calls for Proposals inviting scientists to submit synthetic and collaborative research proposals. Successful proposals identify a significant research question that is at a critical point where it could uniquely benefit from the collation and synthesis of existing data as well as the collaboration and analysis by an interdisciplinary working group. NCEAS issues SNAPP Calls for Proposals and Special Calls for Proposals:

SNAPP: Science for Nature and People: As part of a collaborative initiative with The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), NCEAS issues SNAPP Calls for Proposal (RFP) once a year in March. We seek project proposals that use existing data to fill important knowledge gaps and advance solutions to significant problems at the intersection of nature conservation and human well-being. Projects must have the potential to generate clear outcomes for improving human well-being and nature conservation. Individuals of any nationality, in any institution or governmental agency, are welcome to submit a SNAPP proposal.

The next SNAPP Call for Proposals will be released in March 2017. You can review last year’s SNAPP RFP on the SNAPP website.

Special Calls: NCEAS operates on the premise that: 1) many decades of data have been collected that can be synthesized to produce novel insights into important scientific and societal issues; and 2) the expertise and information resources necessary to accomplish these syntheses are latent but distributed throughout the science community. Periodically NCEAS is approached by a foundation, consortium, or government agency to convene one or more Working Groups to tackle a specific issue or analyze a new collection of data.

The Gulf of Alaska Long Term Synthesis call for Working Groups and Postdoctoral Associates is an example of a Special Call which was initiated and funded by the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustees Council.

There is currently a special Call for Proposals for the State of Alaska's Salmon and People Project. Click the photo below to learn more. Applications close September 20, 2016.



Joint Project Proposal

Alternatively, NCEAS is happy to work with scientists to develop a joint proposal for funding that could be submitted to public or private grantmaking agencies and organizations. The Arctic Options project exemplifies this model, where NCEAS worked with the Principle Investigators to develop a highly collaborative and synthetic proposal using layered environmental data and increased human activity projections to identify policy and governance options for the Arctic. This proposal was funded by the NSF ArcSEES program.

Contact nceas [at] to explore the possibilities of generating a joint synthesis project proposal with NCEAS.

Self-funded Meetings

NCEAS’ institutional and disciplinary "neutrality" facilitates Working Group creativity and increases the degree of trust and speeds conflict resolution among participants. The Center provides technical and analytical support and takes care of the mundane logistical issues, providing a highly supportive and productive environment for collaborative projects.

If you already have funding for a collaborative workshop or working group effort but want a “neutral” location that provides a robust cyberinfrastructure and support, NCEAS conference space and staff can be made available for a small fee. For more information on hosting your next collaboration at NCEAS, contact nceas [at]


NCEAS Working Groups

NCEAS Working Group Model

Addressing the complex and intertwined social and ecological challenges facing society requires a different level of thinking and synthesis. At NCEAS, we believe greater problem solving capacity emanates from collaborative knowledge and response, rather than simply individual research or action. NCEAS is dedicated to conducting ecological and conservation science that is collaborative, open, integrative, relevant, and technologically informed.

For each critical challenge we undertake, a Working Group is formed composed of 12 to 18 experts selected from a range of disciplines, sectors, and geographical regions. They come together to focus and collaborate intensively for a week at a time. Each participant brings his/her data, methods, and experiences for synthesis and analysis, to create new knowledge and understanding. NCEAS’ hospitality, technical infrastructure and support catalyze creative and innovative collaborations.

Everything we do—the knowledge we build and apply, the choices we make, and the actions we take to solve complex socio-ecological and conservation problems—starts with our collaborative approach to synthesis and interdisciplinary teamwork to tackle the challenges we face together.

What Makes NCEAS Working Groups Successful?

The success of the NCEAS approach is evident from the significant impact that synthetic work has had on the fields of ecology and conservation. A good resource for better understanding the correlation between successful collaborations and productivity in scientific syntheses at NCEAS is a paper published by Hampton and Parker, 2011 in BioScience. The heterogeneity of the participants in NCEAS Working Groups is an important factor in their success – mixing genders, disciplines, career stages, sectors, and institutions—Campbell et. al., 2013 evaluated the value and quality of science produced from gender heterogeneous working groups. Find out more about current NCEAS Working Groups.

Planning a Working Group at NCEAS

If you are planning your first Working Group at NCEAS you may find the following links most helpful:

Ecological Effects of Climate Change

NCEAS working groups have generated breakthrough discoveries that provide a bigger picture on the diverse effects of climate change on organisms and their environment. 

Here is a sampling of their most influential studies, some of which have provided the first global perspective on climate effects and have informed natural resource policy and management.

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Effects of Climate Change on Plants and Animals

Many of the defining characteristics of plants and animals – including where they live, seasonal behaviors, potential for coexistence with other species, and relative risk to disease and extinction – are changing in response to climatic conditions in complex and often unpredictable ways. Our research teams have helped clarify the large-scale, long-term impacts.


Global biodiversity is changing at an unprecedented rate in response to several human-induced changes in the environment. NCEAS researchers, Sala et al. (2000), identified that behind land use change, climate change is expected to be the second most important driver of biodiversity shifts. They estimate that small changes in temperature or precipitation in arctic, alpine, desert, and boreal forests will result in large changes in species composition and biodiversity.


Research at NCEAS has produced the first comprehensive study of how marine life is responding to climate change. Scientists from 17 institutions synthesized all available marine climate impact studies to produce a database of 1,735 observed changes to marine life. Poloczanska et al. (2013) concluded that marine species are moving poleward to cooler waters at an average of 72 kilometers per decade — considerably faster than terrestrial species, which are moving at an average of 6 kilometers per decade. This is occurring even though sea surface temperatures are warming three times slower than land temperatures. The report forms part of the Fifth Assessment Report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC).


Many pathogens are sensitive to temperature, rainfall, and humidity; therefore, climate change may impact pathogen development and survival rates, disease transmission, and host susceptibility. A comprehensive study conducted at NCEAS was the first to analyze disease epidemics across entire ecosystems and investigate the impacts of climate change on disease risk. Harvell et al. (2002) concluded that climate change is triggering disease epidemics around the world, as warmer summers and milder winters favor the growth and spread of pathogens. This suggests that disease risk will increase with temperature for a wide range of hosts, including corals, oysters, plants, birds, and humans.


In response to climate change, species are expected to experience shifts in phenology—the seasonal timing of biological activities, such as flowering, breeding, and migrations. NCEAS scientists, Wolkovich et al. (2012), assessed data from four continents and 1,634 plant species and found that warming experiments significantly underestimated how plants will respond to climate change. When compared to long-term observational studies, warming experiments underpredicted phenological responses by at least fourfold.


In response to warming, many terrestrial species are expected to shift their natural ranges—the locations in which they can survive and reproduce. Parmesean et. al. (1999) provided the first large-scale evidence of poleward shifts in entire species’ ranges, concluding that among a sample of 35 non-migratory European butterflies, 63% have ranges that have shifted north during the past century. These NCEAS researchers linked range shifts to climate change by collaborating with European researchers to rule out other factors, such as land use changes, that could have caused the observed geographical trend.

Carbon Dynamics and Ecological Responses

The world’s ecosystems and climate interact with each other – the climate controls how ecosystems function, while ecological processes contribute to the storage and release of greenhouse gases. Our research teams have improved the scientific understanding of these global interactions, which can aide the prediction and management of ecological responses to climate change.


Arctic and boreal ecosystems play crucial roles in the climate system. They have large effects on the atmosphere through energy exchange and carbon sequestration, and they are responsive to even subtle shifts in climate. Therefore, several major North American research programs have studied the way that arctic and boreal ecosystems interact with climate. Combined, these research programs have covered a wide range of topics, but each program by itself has temporal or spatial limitations. To address this at NCEAS, Chapin et al. (2000) integrated the major findings of these programs to describe climate feedbacks that occur in arctic and boreal ecosystems.


Wildfire directly impacts the carbon cycle and climate through release of greenhouse gases, and also indirectly by altering vegetation distribution and structure. However, many climate models fail to adequately account for fire as an integral part of the global climate system. Bowman et al. (2009) concluded that in fact effects of fire on climate change have been underestimated, and intentional deforestation fires alone contribute up to one-fifth of the human-caused increase in emissions of carbon dioxide. In addition, climate change may increase the frequency of severe fires, with potentially significant greenhouse gas feedbacks to the Earth’s atmosphere.


Many studies demonstrate that forests in the Northern Hemisphere absorb a significant amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide, acting as a reservoir, also known as carbon sequestration. However, the magnitude and distribution of these terrestrial carbon sinks remained uncertain prior to a 2002 NCEAS study by Goodale and colleagues. These researchers used national forest inventories from Canada, the United States, Europe, Russia, and China to estimate the amount of carbon absorbed annually by N. Hemisphere forests. They determined that over 80% of the estimated N. Hemisphere terrestrial carbon sink occurred in only one-third of the forested area, in regions that experience fire suppression, agricultural abandonment, and plantation forestry.


Prior to a 2011 NCEAS study by Bastviken and colleagues, freshwater and wetland ecosystems had been largely ignored in calculating global greenhouse gas budgets. Here, scientists analyzed data from 474 freshwater ecosystems and concluded that freshwaters emit methane at a rate equal to 25% of the estimated terrestrial carbon sink. Therefore, this study suggests that the continental greenhouse gas sink may be sizably overestimated.


Net primary productivity (NPP), the rate at which plants convert atmospheric carbon into biomass through photosynthesis, is one of the most critical components of the terrestrial carbon cycle. NCEAS scientists compiled and analyzed NPP, land cover, precipitation, and temperature data from 5,600 locations globally. Del Grosso et al. (2008) found that previous models that relied on precipitation and temperature as predictors of NPP failed to accurately estimate productivity in ecosystems dominated by grasses and shrubs. Consequently, a new model was developed that provides more accurate estimates of how global NPP will respond to climate change and affect climate in the future.


As atmospheric carbon dioxide increases, changes in the global carbon cycle will impact the cycling of another important nutrient: nitrogen. However, the complexity of interactions between the carbon and nitrogen cycles makes it difficult to predict how each cycle will respond to atmospheric carbon dioxide. Through the synthesis of existing experimental data, Luo et al. (2004) developed a new conceptual framework at NCEAS based on the concept of “progressive nitrogen limitation,” where available nitrogen in soil becomes increasingly limiting as carbon and nitrogen are absorbed by long-lived organic matter. This means that in some cases, the amount of carbon dioxide that can be sequestered by plants may be limited by the amount of nitrogen in the soil. Using this framework in climate change models has the potential to reduce uncertainty about global terrestrial carbon sequestration by providing a better understanding of the role of nitrogen.


Permafrost—subsurface soil that remains below freezing for two consecutive years or more—stores billions of metric tons of organic carbon. As global temperatures rise, permafrost thaws and microbes decompose the ancient carbon, releasing methane and carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere. While collaborating at NCEAS, Schuur et al. (2008) found that thawing permafrost is potentially one of the most significant sources of CO2 from terrestrial ecosystems to the atmosphere in a warming climate, meaning that as temperatures rise and permafrost thaws, the gases that are released will further accelerate warming and perpetuate climate change.

Management and Policy Making in the Context of Climate Change

Our research teams have provided insights into how managers and policymakers can conserve natural resources under a changing climate.


Biological reserves are intended to protect species, communities, and ecosystems in human-dominated landscapes. However, existing protected areas represent relatively small, geographically biased portions of species and habitats, and climate change can exacerbate these biases. With that in mind, NCEAS researchers developed a model to improve reserve design in the context of climate change. Pyke and Fischer (2005) used the model to identify new protected areas that would complement existing reserves in preserving biodiversity, while representing environmental conditions across a range of climate scenarios.


Natural resource management in the face of climate change requires protecting an ecosystem’s ability to respond and adapt to warming temperatures. This may involve tactics like prioritizing the protection of especially resilient species or reducing anthropogenic impacts that exacerbate the effects of climate change. For example, Baskett et al. (2010) compared various protection strategies for corals to inform more focused and efficient conservation priorities. They found that protecting reefs with diverse coral communities and a moderate abundance of stress-tolerant species is more critical than protecting reefs with lower species diversity and high abundance of stress-tolerant species.

Available Data in the KNB Repository

In support of open science, NCEAS encourages data publication in online repositories. Below are a few examples of freely available NCEAS datasets pertinent to climate change research:

Ecology of Infectious Diseases

Understanding the interactions between infectious diseases and the environment requires interdisciplinary collaboration like that enabled by NCEAS. We have convened teams of ecologists, evolutionary biologists, medical researchers, and social scientists to explore the interactions between disease, humans, and their environments. Here is a sampling of their most influential papers.

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Disease Epidemics in Humans and Animals

Ecology drives the worldwide distribution of human diseases, and many disease organisms that threaten humans are in turn affected by human actions and non-human attributes of ecosystems. Our research teams have used ecological theory to better understand patterns of disease transmission to inform infectious disease control and public health policy.


Rabies is a viral disease that is contracted by mammals like bats, dogs, and raccoons and can be transmitted to humans through direct interaction. Smith et al. (2002) analyzed an extensive database documenting rabid raccoons to see how human demography and key habitat features influence the spatial dynamics of raccoon rabies epidemics. They found that large rivers act as semipermeable barriers to transmission, leading to a 7-fold reduction in local rates of disease spread, and that human population density had very little effect on the local spread of rabies.


When investigating epidemics, scientists often focus on the individual cases that are severe or fatal. However, an NCEAS study by King et. al. 2008 published in Nature suggests that mild or asymptomatic cases infecting large numbers of people are the key to understanding outbreak cycles of cholera —a mild to severe bacterial infection of the small intestine. This has important implications for the interpretation of epidemiological records, which often exclude the mild or asymptotic cases of infection.


The deadliest form of malaria in humans is also very sensitive to climate. Previous scientific studies estimated the optimal temperature for malaria transmission from mosquitos to humans at 31°C, but an NCEAS study found transmission to peak at much lower temperatures. Mordecai and colleagues (2013) developed a new mathematical model that accounts for the fact that both mosquitoes and parasites suffer in high temperatures. Their results predict malaria transmission to peak at 25°C and dramatically decrease above 28°C. Unlike previous models, the new model fits observations of malaria transmission in Africa very well, and will aid in understanding the effects of temperature on the spread of malaria and other diseases.


Grenfell et al. (2001) analyzed an exhaustive dataset of measles epidemics in England and Whales, and revealed recurring wave-like patterns of disease transmission throughout the region. They found that infections would begin in large core cities and then spread to smaller satellite towns. This paper was fundamental in quantifying the way that human settlement structures impact the spread of infection.

Ecosystems and Infectious Disease

Pathogens and parasites play important roles in the evolution and ecology of natural systems. Our research teams have improved understandings of the relationships between diseases, their hosts, and their environments to better understand the impacts to ecosystem processes.


A 2003 NCEAS study examined the relationship between disease risk and biodiversity, and its implications for conservation. Altizer et al. (2003) concluded that host genetic diversity plays an important role in buffering populations against widespread epidemics. Pathogens can also be a driving force behind maintaining biodiversity, so preserving interacting networks of coevolving hosts and pathogens is important to enable hosts to respond to future disease threats. Therefore, conservation programs should seek to maintain natural host-pathogen interactions as an important evolutionary process.


Many pathogens are highly sensitive to climate, and several NCEAS projects have examined the impact of seasonal forcing and climate change on infectious disease dynamics. A comprehensive study conducted at NCEAS was the first to analyze disease epidemics across entire ecosystems and investigate the impacts of climate change on disease risk. Harvell et al. (2002) concluded that climate change is triggering disease epidemics around the world, as warmer summers and milder winters favor the growth and spread of pathogens. This suggests that disease risk will increase with temperature for a wide range of hosts, including corals, oysters, plants, birds, and humans.


Success of introduced species is often attributed to escape from the pathogens of their native ranges. However, prior to two NCEAS studies published in Nature, there was a lack of clear, quantitative evidence to support this hypothesis. Mitchell et al. (2003) studied infection rates of invasive plants in their introduced and native ranges, finding that exotic plants were infected by 77% fewer fungus and virus pathogen species than their native counterparts. In addition, exotic plant species that are more completely released from their natural pathogens are more likely to be reported as harmful invaders of agricultural and natural ecosystems.

The same is true for animals. Torchin and colleagues (2003) compared the parasites of exotic animals in their introduced and native ranges using 26 host species of mollusks, crustaceans, fishes, birds, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles. They found that the number of parasites found in exotic populations is half that found in native populations.


Many factors, such as climate warming, pollution, harvesting, and introduced species can contribute to disease outbreaks in marine life. However, simultaneous increases in each of these makes it difficult to attribute recent changes in disease occurrence to any one factor. Lafferty and colleagues (2004) synthesized studies of disease outbreaks in the ocean, and concluded that environmental degradation and climate change are increasing diseases in several marine taxa, while reducing disease incidence in others. For example, an increase in disease of Caribbean coral is postulated to be a result of climate change and introduction of terrestrial pathogens. In contrast, fishing and pollution may have reduced diseases in fishes. This study highlights the complexity of marine disease dynamics and stresses the importance of long-term studies in tracking changes in disease over time.

Available Data in the KNB Repository

In support of open science, NCEAS encourages data publication in online repositories. Below are a few examples of freely available NCEAS datasets pertinent to infectious disease research:

Ecosystem Services

People rely on natural resources in many different ways for cultural, economic, spiritual, aesthetic, and ecological benefits, often called ecosystem services. NCEAS working groups have developed innovative quantitative approaches and tools to understand the value of these benefits to our livelihoods and well-being. Here are some of their most influential papers.

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Innovations in Ecosystem Services Science


It is much easier to place monetary value on goods traded in a marketplace than on intact natural resources; however, both provide valuable services to humans. To address this, Costanza and colleagues developed the first conceptual and empirical tools based on many previous site-specific studies to estimate the value of services provided by ecosystems worldwide. In a pivotal Nature paper, they presented a crude global average value of ecosystem services, such as pollination, erosion control, and waste treatment, of $33 trillion per year in 1995 (Costanza et al. 1997). This transformative work stimulated an explosion of research activity in a burgeoning field.

After spending almost two decades improving their modeling approach, in 2014 Costanza et al. estimated that global ecosystem services were valued between $125 and $145 trillion per year in 2011. Their research continues to challenge the field by asking, “How can we level the playing field when managing the tradeoffs between commodities and common pool natural resources?”


Arguably one of the most difficult things to quantify is how biodiversity as a whole contributes to the goods and services that society values. Levels of biodiversity can be estimated based upon the sheer number of species present in a system, or upon specifically which species are present, or both. Kolstad and colleagues identified novel market and non-market mechanisms to infer the economic values of biodiversity, and thus conservation incentives. Several of this Working Group’s papers appeared in a special issue of the scientific journal Resource and Energy Economics in 2004 and made key contributions to advance the field of ecosystem services.


As human population continues to increase around the world, biodiversity is declining, in some cases rapidly, creating unprecedented threats to the services ecosystems provide to society. Reliable forecasting for which, where, and how ecosystem services will respond to global development and natural resource use is essential to sustainable planning. In a provocative Science commentary, Clark et al. (2001) described how important the interdisciplinary linkages between climate, society, ecology, and economics are for our ability to forecast ecosystem change. They identified new data sets, computational capabilities, and appropriate statistics to perform such imperative forecasting.


Cultural services have often been excluded from ecosystem service valuation because they can be intangible and disproportionately distributed among people. However, ignoring the cultural services that nature provides could underestimate the value of ecosystem services. Leveraging NCEAS’ dedication to exploring holistic approaches that advance ecology to improve human well being and the environment, Chan et al. (2012) defined eight dimensions of cultural values for decision-making within a valuation framework that more inclusively considers stakeholder perspectives. This research helped innovate ecosystem service valuation by describing the interconnectedness of all the benefits of nature, material and non-material, use and non-use.

Balancing Human Well-Being and Conservation of Services


Nelson et al.’s (2009) study modeling ecosystem services, biodiversity conservation, commodity production, and tradeoffs is among the top 20 cited papers that have appeared in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. To achieve this, they applied the Integrated Valuation of Ecosystem Services and Tradeoffs (InVest) model, which is based on production functions, economic valuation methods, and rural land-use changes. Their results show that scenarios that enhance biodiversity conservation also enhance ecosystem services, meaning there is no tradeoff between the two objectives for rural land; rather, they are synergistic. However, they did find a tradeoff between commodity production and both biodiversity conservation and ecosystem services. Interestingly, a carbon sequestration payment scheme could reverse this tradeoff and make conservation profitable. This work emphasizes how natural resource management is most effective and efficient when ecosystem services are quantified and the tradeoffs between them are analyzed in a spatially explicit manner.


Biological invasions of non-native insects can threaten the economic and social benefits forests provide to humans. More than 450 non-native insects plague US forests, but the broad-scale economic impacts of those invasions were unknown until Aukema et al. (2011) estimated current and future true cost of damages. For example, these NCEAS researchers estimated that based on the 2009 US dollar over a ten year period, tree loss and damages caused by invasive wood-boring pests cost homeowners collectively $839 million per year in lost property values due to lost aesthetics, and governments approximately $1.7 billion per year to monitor and respond to hazards and damages. These estimates informed a Congressional Bill—Safeguarding American Act of 2011 (S. 1673), reintroduced in 2012 but not yet enacted—to strengthen US pest prevention efforts and preserve forest ecosystem services.


In cities, trees provide multiple human benefits and ecosystem services including shade, habitat for wildlife, pollutant absorption, and increased real estate value. But space is limited and city planners tasked with sustainable development have to choose where to plant, or remove, trees. An important part of that decision is environmental justice—the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income. Following an NCEAS Working Group, Boone and colleagues wrote multiple book chapters in 2012, discussing socio-ecological and economic aspects of environmental justice, specifically the equitability of how ecosystem services are distributed in urban areas, quantified by things such as the presence of trees.


A common assumption when estimating the value of an ecosystem service has been that a given function, such as coastal protection, is directly proportional to a particular ecosystem characteristic, such as the size of the ecosystem. These linear relationships are often an oversimplification of natural processes, and in reality these relationships can be complex and non-linear. Koch et al. (2009) explored these ecosystem service assumptions for marshes, seagrasses, mangroves, and coral reefs—natural physical obstacles that dissipate wave energy and protect shorelines. For example, they found that the effectiveness of mangroves to dissipate wave energy and their corresponding “value” decreases with both an increasing tide and decreasing forest health. This work revealed the importance of understanding habitat quality and cumulative effects in ecosystem functions in order to account for non-linearities, and realistically estimate ecosystem service values, and improve management.


Prior to a 2007 NCEAS study by Klein and colleagues, the extent of global reliance on animal pollination for crop production had not been evaluated. In their highly cited paper in Biological Sciences, Klein and coauthors used data from 200 countries and found that among all 107 crops traded on the world market, 33 crops are highly dependent on animal-mediated pollination—13 of which cannot thrive without it—and an additional 27 are moderately dependent on animals for pollination. They also concluded that agricultural intensification, or the investment of capital and/or labor to increase crop yield of a given land area, jeopardizes pollinators like wild bee communities, which in effect diminishes their pollination services. Pollinator loss via agricultural intensification will most severely impact those 13 crops that are entirely dependent on animal pollinators for reproduction. Species like passion fruit and vanilla rely on only a few pollinating species, and are therefore at greatest risk. In order to boost native pollinator densities, they call for reduction in pesticide use and landscape-scale management practices, such as increasing nesting opportunities and floral resources. This work was referenced in a 2010 Congressional Report entitled Honey Bee Colony Collapse Disorder.

Available Data in the KNB Repository

In support of open science, NCEAS encourages data publication in online repositories. Below are a few examples of freely available NCEAS datasets pertinent to ecosystem services research:

Marine Ecology and Resources Management

NCEAS working groups have produced marine research of global significance. Here is a sampling of their most influential studies, many of which have informed marine policies and resource management.

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Marine Ecology

Our research teams have addressed fundamental questions about ecological and evolutionary processes in the ocean.


Many NCEAS studies have explored the ecology of nearshore ecosystems, which provide important services like shoreline protection, water filtration, and critical habitat. Beck et al. (2001) highlighted the importance of habitats like seagrasses, marshes, and mangroves in providing nurseries for a great abundance and diversity of juvenile fish and invertebrates. They developed a novel framework that can be used to identify areas that are important marine nursery grounds, which may inform conservation and management efforts.


The majority of shallow-water marine species have a two-phase life cycle in which relatively sedentary adults produce pelagic larvae that are carried long distances by ocean currents. Since the 1950’s, it has been widely accepted that local populations of marine species are “open,” with new larvae establishing from non-local sources. However, a growing number of studies indicate that larvae are capable of recruiting back to their local source population, known as self-recruitment. One of the most important unanswered questions in marine ecology concerns the degree to which this occurs. Swearer et al. (2002) conducted a review of existing evidence for self-recruitment, and found that it occurs across many species and locations, and may actually be a “pervasive phenomenon” among marine organisms. This highlights a pressing need to re-evaluate the status-quo use of “open” population models in the management of marine ecosystems.


Although we once thought the deep sea to be barren, scientists now understand that this largely unexplored environment is teeming with life. In order to compare the level of biodiversity found in the deep sea with other dissimilar marine habitats, its important to control for geography, taxonomy, habitat structure, and sampling methods, also known as a “controlled comparison.” Here at NCEAS, researchers conducted the first controlled comparison of species diversity on the continental shelf and the deep sea in the Northwest Atlantic region. The results from Levin et al. (2001) support the often-disputed claim that the deep sea actually has considerably higher diversity than exists on the continental shelf.

Threats and Population Declines

Through synthesis-driven status assessments, our research teams have provided insights into threats to and trends in marine species to inform their conservation and management. 


Through the synthesis of 47 case studies of seagrass loss, an international team of NCEAS scientists declared seagrass ecosystems to be in a global crisis. Orth et al. (2006) found that coastal development, human population growth, and the resulting increase of nutrient and sediment pollution have contributed to large-scale seagrass losses worldwide. The study’s authors call for targeted global conservation to preserve seagrasses and the essential ecological services that they provide.


Coral reefs have suffered massive declines in abundance, diversity, and habitat structure. However, prior to a 2003 NCEAS study, there was no long-term historical record of ecosystem decline for any coral reef in the world. Through the synthesis of data extending back thousands of years, Pandolfi et al. (2003) reconstructed the ecological histories of 14 coral reef ecosystems. They found that trajectories of decline were strikingly similar worldwide and that all reefs were substantially degraded from overfishing long before recent outbreaks of coral disease and bleaching. Given historical trends, researchers predict that coral reef ecosystems will not survive for more than a few decades unless drastic conservation actions are taken.


NCEAS researchers were involved in producing the most comprehensive assessment of the distribution and conservation status of the world’s mammals, including marine mammals. An NCEAS working group was the starting point for a 5-year collaborative effort coordinated by the International Union for Conservation of Nature in which 1,700 experts from 130 countries compiled detailed information on all 5,487 mammal species. In a landmark Science publication, Schipper et al. (2008) found that threat levels are higher for marine mammals than land mammals, with 36% of marine mammals threatened with extinction. The dominant threat is accidental anthropogenic mortality, particularly in fishing gear and via vessel strike.


Although fisheries bycatch—accidental capture in fishing gear—is often cited as a major driver of sea turtle declines, the magnitude and extent of sea turtle bycatch had not been assessed prior to a study at NCEAS. Lewison et al. (2004) found that worldwide, pelagic longline fisheries were estimated to have accidentally caught at least 200,000 loggerhead turtles and 50,000 leatherback turtles in 2000 alone. This large-scale synthesis was necessary to accurately quantify the effects of global fisheries on these widely distributed, threatened species.


Through the synthesis of paleoecological, archaeological, and historical data, a team of NCEAS scientists was able to trace the recent collapse of coastal ecosystems to long-term trends of overfishing that began thousands of years ago. Jackson et al. (2001) found that historical abundances of large marine vertebrates like whales and sharks were “fantastically large” in comparison to recent observations. Researchers recommend that effective management consider both the current symptoms of ecosystem decline as well as their deep historical causes.


Research at NCEAS has produced the first comprehensive study of how marine life is responding to climate change. Scientists from 17 institutions synthesized all available marine climate impact studies to produce a database of 1,735 observed changes to marine life. Poloczanska et al. (2013) concluded that marine species are moving poleward to cooler waters at an average of 72 kilometers per decade—considerably faster than terrestrial species, which are moving at an average of 6 kilometers per decade. This is occurring even though sea surface temperatures are warming three times slower than land temperatures. The report forms part of the Fifth Assessment Report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC).

Coastal and Marine Resource Management

Our research teams have evaluated marine resource management strategies to help managers better account for the many ways people use oceans and consider economic and social implications, as well as the ecological ones.


Ecosystem-based management (EBM) aims to restore and protect entire ecosystems for the benefit of all organisms, including humans, by finding a balance between conservation and resource use, often through the valuation of ecosystem services. Contrary to the “all-or-nothing” approach to conservation, Barbier et al. (2008) used EBM to evaluate coastal development for habitats like mangroves and showed that an integrated land use option involving some conversion to shrimp farms and some mangrove preservation may yield the highest total value for coastal communities.


Leveraging the latest marine spatial planning (MSP) tools, scientists at NCEAS have been leaders in developing the theory of marine protected areas (MPAs). Over 50 NCEAS publications have used science to inform the design and implementation of MPAs, in order to optimize their effectiveness for conservation and fisheries management. NCEAS scientists were at the forefront of two important collections of cutting edge marine reserve research: the Ecological Applications Supplement: The Science of Marine Reserves (2003) and the PNAS Marine Reserves Special Feature (2010). All of the publications in the Ecological Applications Supplement and a quarter of the studies featured by PNAS were NCEAS products that integrated marine spatial planning, ecosystem-based management, and MPAs science to provide comprehensive analysis and recommendations.

In one project, Halpern and colleagues were some of the first researchers to go beyond studying marine reserves on an individual basis to explore global trends in how marine life responds to reserve protection. Halpern and Warner (2002) synthesized data from 80 marine reserves and concluded that, overall, there was higher species density, biomass, size, and biodiversity of organisms in marine reserves compared to unprotected areas. They found that marine life responded quickly (1-3 years) to reserve protection and that positive changes last through time.

Measuring and Understanding Ocean Health

Our research teams have developed novel ways to measure and interpret the status of our oceans.


Biodiversity indicators are widely used to assess the state of the world’s oceans and fisheries. However, Branch et al. (2010) determined that the most widely adopted marine biodiversity indicator, which relied upon fish catch data, led to inaccurate conclusions in nearly half of the ecosystems where it was applied. This was the first large-scale test to determine the accuracy of catch data in predicting changes in ecosystem biodiversity. The team recommended greater efforts to measure true abundance trends for multiple marine species, especially those most vulnerable to fishing.


Increasingly ecosystem health is being assessed through the evaluation of ecosystem services; the underlying assumption being that a healthy, productive marine ecosystem provides more services. Worm et al. (2006) found that overall, marine biodiversity loss is increasingly impairing ecosystems, diminishing the ocean's capacity to provide food, maintain water quality, and recover from distress.


The 2015 update to the high-impact 2008 study on global cumulative impact, one of the most highly cited NCEAS papers, developed temporal and spatial analyses of cumulative human impacts on the ocean. Published in Nature Communications, Halpern and colleagues studied the changes in impact caused by climate change, fishing, and ocean- and land- based stressors. They found that two thirds of the ocean has experienced increased impacts from human activity since the initial study, which was predominantly driven by climate change. While the impact of some stressors on the ocean is decreasing, the cumulative impact of all stressors has increased. The 2015 research highlighted which ecosystems should be prioritized for mitigation efforts and serves as an invaluable tool for marine ecosystem management. Learn more about the reserach here.


The Ocean Health Index is a measurement tool that provides a uniform way to evaluate the condition of ecosystems within exclusive economic zones according to 10 human goals that represent the key ecological, social, and economic benefits provided by a healthy ocean. Some of the goals include food provision, coastal protection, and biodiversity. With a perfect health index score being 100, initial results published in Nature by Halpern et al. (2012) revealed that global oceans as a whole earned an overall score of 60. Individually, only 5% of countries scored higher than 70, whereas 32% scored lower than 50. This analysis is repeated yearly to provide resource managers and policy makers with an indicator of progress over time. Lead scientist for the Ocean Health Index, Dr. Ben Halpern, spoke about the project at the first Our Ocean Conference, hosted by the U.S. Department of State in 2014.


The ongoing Ocean Tipping Points project assesses the status of the ocean in the context of ecological thresholds, or “tipping points.” Tipping points exist when small changes in human use or environmental conditions result in large, and sometimes abrupt, impacts to marine ecosystems. Identifying an ecosystem’s vulnerability to tipping points may help managers to anticipate, avoid, or respond to major ecosystem shifts in the ocean.

Available Data in the KNB Repository

In support of open science, NCEAS encourages data publication in online repositories. Below are a few examples of freely available NCEAS datasets pertinent to marine research:

Science for Nature and People Partnership

Building a world in which people and nature thrive requires combining the expertise of many individuals and applying science to on-the-ground solutions. The Science for Nature and People Partnership (SNAPP) is a collaboration between NCEAS, The Nature Conservancy, and Wildlife Conservation Society that is grounded in this understanding.

SNAPP is an opportunity for scientists, policymakers, and field practitioners to come together to develop evidence-based solutions to global challenges that lie at the intersection of nature conservation, sustainable development, and human well-being. These interdisciplinary teams answer big-picture questions related to four themes: Water and Nature, Food Security and Nature, Natural Climate Solutions, and The Value of Nature.

SNAPP issues a call for proposals once a year, typically between February and April. To get notifications of these calls and other announcements, subscribe to the SNAPP newsletter by emailing snapp [at]

Visit the SNAPP website to learn more about its mission, people, and solutions, as well as how you can support this innovative work.


Expand the accordions below to learn about the projects.

Water and Nature

These teams are seeking innovative approaches to harmonize water needs for nature, agriculture, business, and communities to ensure sufficient and clean water for all.



Maintaining connectivity of Amazonian aquatic ecosystems for human well-being and biodiversity
The Amazon Basin is the largest tropical wilderness area and the most biologically diverse place on Earth. Amazonia is home to hundreds of indigenous peoples and other traditional cultures which rely on this vast freshwater system. How can connectivity of this vast, interlinked, and dynamic freshwater system be maintained, so as to support human well-being, wildlife, and the environments on which they depend? This will require the conservation of critical wetlands, strengthening fisheries management, and minimizing the environmental impacts of infrastructure and extractive industries on the Amazon's diverse aquatic ecosystems. This Working Group has developed a strong scientific foundation to support this vision, and is now in a position to suggest management and policy pathways for large-scale aquatic conservation.




Impacts of hydraulic fracturing on water quantity and quality
New technologies of horizontal drilling with hydraulic fracturing are making shale energy development possible and are helping meet increasing global energy demand. Hydraulic fracturing also uses large quantities of water and produces toxic chemical waste. This Working Group is examining the impacts of energy extraction on water supplies and wastewater contamination. By documenting best practices, SNAPP will help predict and avoid conflicts between shale energy development and the need for clean, safe water for people and natural systems.




Incentivizing water transactions to enhance streamflow, water supply reliability, and rural economic viability
Over-allocation of water for agricultural, municipal, and industrial use severely depletes stream flows across the American West, degrading ecosystems, and posing economic risk to all who depend on reliable water supplies. This Working Group is developing a novel approach to water sharing – using legal water transaction agreements that change water use or transfer or sell water rights – to eliminate zero-sum competition between users, and instead advance a multiple-benefit approach that restores stream flows, reduces economic risk associated with water shortages, and maintains agricultural economies.




Prioritizing source water protection programs to alleviate the risks of flood and drought
While source water protection programs are often implemented in response to hydrological shifts caused by climate change and land degradation, there is little empirical evidence about how these activities affect the quantity of water downstream. This project will investigate to what extent, and under what circumstances, source water protection activities can produce meaningful baseflow, groundwater recharge, and flood impacts.




Understanding how can nature improve sanitation and water quality, and how sanitation goals benefit nature
As more than half the world’s population lacks improved or adequate sanitation, the unsafe management of fecal waste and wastewater continues to present a major risk to public health and the environment. This working group aims to examine how wastewater utilities and their regulators can implement nature-based sanitation solutions into wastewater treatment facilities while also providing benefits to nature and biodiversity.




Prioritizing investments to meet urban water needs
Water stress is an increasing global problem, with as much as 30% of the world’s population facing water shortages on a regular basis. Water funds and other investments to protect upstream watersheds and water sources may be part of the solution, and may reduce the need for more costly built infrastructure like dams and reservoirs. This Working Group is developing a methodology to identify where and how investments in natural capital in select Latin American cities can help solve urban water quality, scarcity and management issues.


Food Security and Nature

These teams are developing science-based strategies to balance the growing demand for fisheries and agriculture with conservation goals to ensure long-term food security and sustainability.



Worldwide fish stock assessment solutions
Overfishing threatens the health of many of the world’s fish stocks and the millions who rely on fish for their livelihood and animal protein. We know that reliably assessed fisheries tend to be better managed and thus less overfished; however, we lack regular assessment data for more than 90% of Earth’s fisheries. This Working Group is developing innovative, inexpensive approaches to assess such data-limited fisheries and will create new tools and local training to improve sustainability of small-scale fisheries and local economies.




Measuring the status of fisheries and factors leading to success
Fisheries are an important source of global food security, income and employment, and are closely tied to changes in the health of marine environments. Effective management of the world’s fisheries suffers from many challenges, but the lack of data and analysis magnifies the challenges tenfold. To improve the science of fisheries management and the health of the world’s fisheries, scientists from around the world will come together with new data to improve our understanding of the current status of key fish stocks, and provide a systematic analysis of all the factors that lead to good outcomes in fisheries management.




Equitably securing food production and forest conservation targets
Food demand in Sub-Saharan Africa is expected to triple by 2050. This puts Sustainable Development Goals 2 (ending hunger) and 15 (protect terrestrial ecosystems) at odds as conversion to agriculture is the primary driver of deforestation. Working in Ethiopia, Ghana and Tanzania and building on previous efforts by the International Institute for Environment and Development, this group combines spatial and political economy analysis to better reconcile these competing goals.




Informing development in Colombia’s last agricultural frontier
In the past other regions of Colombia experienced agricultural booms, like the one currently overtaking the Orinoquia, with little or no planning for land-use changes and associated energy and communications infrastructure. This resulted in loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services. Right now, there is a unique opportunity to avoid a similar development path in the Orinoquia. To inform decision-making, this Working Group is assessing the effects of expanding agricultural commodities and related land-use changes, and identifying the consequences of different land-use scenarios.




Analyzing Best Practices and Standards for open-ocean aquaculture
Aquaculture currently represents 50 percent of all fisheries products for direct human consumption. It’s not a question of if or when aquaculture will take off, but more about how and where it will expand, and what people can do to help steer it towards more sustainable practices. This Working Group of industry representatives, scientists, and others will examine current best practices, analyze opportunities for sustainable expansion, as well as the economic and ecological impacts of potential aquaculture development scenarios, with a special focus on the emerging sector of open-ocean aquaculture, which currently has no best-practice guidance of any kind.




Enhancing information on land-use impacts on fisheries
While most marine data tries to make sense of what is happening above and below the ocean surface, marine environments are also impacted by land-based activities such as logging, mining and construction. Increasing populations and economic development along coasts around the globe are leading to growing pressures on fisheries and other marine resources. This Working Group is creating a model to help predict the impacts of land-use changes on fisheries. By closing the gap between terrestrial development and marine resources, SNAPP will help decision makers assess how their choices could impact economic development, fisheries and livelihoods.




Stopping an epidemic that threatens Mongolian wildlife and livestock
Infectious diseases at the livestock/wildlife interface threaten the health and well-being of wildlife, livestock, and human livelihoods. Using data from the recent Mongolian outbreak of peste des petits ruminants (PPR) that killed tens of thousands of livestock and more than half of the endangered saiga antelope population, the project will look at the potential for participatory epidemiology, or bottom-up surveillance by the pastoralists themselves, as the most effective way to prevent future outbreaks.




Planning solutions for Tanzania's Southern Ag Growth Corridor
The expansion of agriculture into wild lands poses an enormous risk to conservation efforts. An alternative may be to intensify agriculture in specific places, growing more food on less land while sparing key natural areas. Large “infrastructure corridors” are being proposed in developing countries around the world as a way to expand intensive, commercial agriculture to feed the growing population. This Working Group is focusing on the Southern Agricultural Growth Corridor of Tanzania (SAGCOT) to identify and map the trade-offs between agricultural intensification and the high risk to agricultural livelihoods, ecosystem services, and biodiversity to guide smart planning and sustainable agricultural development.


Natural Climate Solutions

These teams are improving how we protect communities and ecosystems from drought, storms, and sea-level rise.



Encouraging economic development to jointly benefit humans and nature
Despite improvements over the last 50 years, the Central Appalachian Coalfields region of Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia, remain among the most impoverished areas in the United States. Once strongly focused on mining, forestry, agriculture and heavy/chemical industry, the region is well-positioned to embrace a vibrant, diverse economy including manufacturing, service industries, renewable energy development, tourism, and a revived forest products industry. This project will investigate how regional economic development in the Central Appalachian Coalfields can jointly benefit human well-being and environmental sustainability.




Using nature to protect our shorelines from hazards
Natural habitats such as mangroves, coral reefs, and wetlands, as well as manmade barriers including levees and seawalls, help coastal communities withstand the impacts of extreme environmental events. This Working Group is measuring how, where, and how much coastal habitats can protect communities from the impacts of storm surges, sea level rise, and other natural hazards. They are developing practical guidance and tools for decision-makers and practitioners to implement natural solutions that lead to reduced risks for coastal communities and livelihoods.




Aligning coastal restoration with ecological and societal needs
Coastal ecosystems are being degraded and the extent of these ecosystems has been reduced worldwide. These changes are exposing coastal communities and assets to more risks of disasters and climate change. In response, new policies have been created to include coastal habitat restoration in risk management plans. Yet agencies are facing hard decisions about where to invest in coastal restoration, and how to set targets to meet the needs of both nature and people. This Working Group will inform future restoration decisions by examining agency needs for decision-making, assess past restoration projects, and develop achievable metrics and approaches for guiding future restoration efforts.




Understanding drought risks and improving preparedness
The intensity and frequency of droughts in North America are expected to increase in scope and duration – with concurrent challenges to people and nature. To meet these challenges, this Working Group will synthesize the current understanding of ecological (multi-year, climate-induced) drought, and identify research priorities, including methods for evaluating future drought risks that don’t rely only on historic data. They will also work with existing pilot efforts on drought resiliency, and field test a suite of community preparedness and conservation actions that increase resilience to drought without harming the natural systems that both depend on.




Fire management decisions in the face of uncertainty
There is growing concern over how to best manage fire-prone landscapes in the face of an uncertain future climate, as well as an increasingly contentious scientific debate over how much high-severity fire should be considered “natural” in dry conifer forests across the Western U.S. Unfortunately, the debate has become a roadblock to practical action on fire management. To identify common ground among fire researchers, this Working Group will bring together representatives from both sides to address the core issues of the debate, review and synthesize available data, identify where consensus exists, focus on policy and management decisions based on that consensus, and develop a strategy for resolving issues that remain unsettled.




Maintaining timber production while improving outcomes for carbon, conservation and water
Native tropical forests under selective logging for timber production already cover more than twice the area of those under strict conservation protection. Meanwhile, a smaller but growing proportion of tropical forests is being converted to high-intensity timber plantations. This Working Group aims to develop an empirical, science-based framework to answer the question: How do people and countries achieve the greatest conservation and human well-being outcomes in landscapes with target levels of timber production?




Improving science-based soil management
Any viable approach to achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals requires addressing soil, which is the foundation of both healthy natural and agricultural systems. However, reliable, quantitative data on the contributions of key soil properties – like soil organic matter – to achieving production and environmental goals are lacking. This Working Group is working to improve science-based soil management by quantifying the relationships between SOM and crop yield, livestock value, carbon storage, biodiversity outcomes, and nutrient retention to create science-based targets for the management of soils.


The Value of Nature

These teams are identifying practical ways to incorporate nature conservation into global plans for healthy economies and communities.



Utilizing biocultural indicators to improve the long-term resilience of the Pacific
Biodiversity and food- and water-security throughout the Pacific will be negatively impacted by climate change. Climate change, In combination with local stessors, will lead to the exploitation of resources, habitat transformation, and the spread of invasive species in the Pacific. Enduring these pressures will require practices and policies that best foster resilient and adaptive communities to be adopted. In order to improve long-term community resilience to these changes, this Working Group will develop a biocultural approach to community planning and monitoring that incorporates the intimate connections of Pacific peoples with the land and sea.




Understanding the full implications of land-use decisions
Many critical land-use decisions are made without a full understanding of the tradeoffs between economic returns, impacts on biodiversity, and benefits derived from nature that land use alternatives might provide or maintain. This Working Group will use a data-driven, economic analysis-based approach to incorporate the impacts of both markets and policies on land-use decisions. This framework will enable decision-makers to see with unprecedented breadth and depth the full range of potential tradeoffs different land-use choices might yield among social, economic and environmental values.




Understanding the trade-offs and synergies of positive conservation outcomes for people and coastal ecosystems
In coastal ecosystems, scientists and managers often encourage the use of marine protected areas (MPAs) and other effective area-based conservation measures (OECMs) in order to provide both ecological and social benefits. This Working Group is assessing the social, ecological, and political conditions in which the use of MPAs and OECMs are associated with positive outcomes for both people and nature, as well as the synergies and trade-offs that exist between multiple outcomes.




Determining a compensatory approach for equitable conservation
Billions of dollars are spent in compensating for the negative impacts of industrial development on nature and local communities every year. With the increase in compensatory mechanisms, such as offset and no net loss policies, now is the time to influence the development of compensation policy for the better. This Working Group is developing criteria for identifying the type of compensatory approach most likely to deliver equitable conservation benefits for conservation and local communities.




Linking human health and the environment
The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and a new scientific movement focused on the concept of “Planetary Health” are drawing increased attention to the links between human health and the environment. Unfortunately, the lack of objective scientific evaluation of these links — such as those between disease transmission and environmental change — makes it difficult to design interventions that promote healthy outcomes for both people and nature. This Working Group will identify local or regional actionable, ecological levers – types of interventions – that can have direct, measurable benefits for health and the environment for the communities that institute them.




What would an economically rational Chinese ivory trade policy look like?
Reducing demand for ivory is seen as vital to eliminating pressure on increasingly threatened elephant populations. How to reduce such demand in China – whether by regulating the legal trade (which entails effectively combating the parallel illegal ivory trade) or instituting a permanent ban on all ivory trade – is the subject of debate because so little is known about the economic intricacies of the Chinese ivory trade. To help policymakers make informed decisions between regulation or a ban, this Working Group will assess the economics of the Chinese ivory trade, its impacts on human livelihoods in China and Africa, and provide policy recommendations to the Chinese government in time to inform China’s 2016 National Congress Conference, which is a particularly important opportunity because it will guide Chinese policies at the next Conference of the Parties to CITES (CoP17) in October 2016.




Measuring and valuing ecosystem services and human well-being benefits delivered by Key Biodiversity Areas
In an effort to support management decisions of biologically important areas, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has led the development of a new standard for the identification of sites, known as Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs). KBAs are areas that contribute to the global persistence of biodiversity and the current standard for identifying these sites, is based solely on characteristics of the biodiversity they contain. While the standard also requests that each identified site include information on the ecosystem services provided as well as the human well-being benefits that are gained through its protection, this information is not used in determining KBA sites. A new SNAPP working group is bringing together the exiting efforts on ecosystem service assessment and the emerging KBA standards, with the goal of including ecosystem services and the benefits to human well-being in the KBA identification process.




Making the right decisions for people and nature
As global conservation and policy organizations wrestle with challenges like water scarcity and overfishing, they are placing growing emphasis on showing the value of a healthy environment to the health, development and well-being of people. However, we still lack substantiation linking the effects of conservation efforts to social outcomes – both good and bad. This Working Group will appraise existing evidence documenting such links and illustrate how the science could guide conservation project managers, policy makers and social impact investors.




Integrating environmental anthropology and critical Indigenous studies and gender studies in partnerships with Indigenous communities
Scholars have examined conservation and development from a variety of theoretical perspectives. However, their findings can often be inaccessible to non-academics in conservation NGOs or Indigenous communities directly involved in conservation. These groups hold critical knowledge and are essential to conservation success on the ground. This Working Group aims to apply social science-based thinking around race, class, and gender to everyday conservation practice by creating and facilitating cross-learning opportunities between researchers and communities.




Ecosystem and resilience metrics
Providing for a growing and increasingly wealthy global population while protecting the environment calls for a dramatic paradigm shift in how we approach development. Working closely with government ministries of the Volta and Nile Basins, this Working Group is developing agriculture, ecosystem and natural resource-based indicators for planning and monitoring country-scale progress on the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The indicators will be grounded in ecosystem sciences, include novel evaluation measures for natural capital and ecosystem services, and have practical policy relevance.




Case study of forestry and wetland landscapes in Rwanda
Gross Domestic Product, the most common indicator of economic performance, does not include many non-marketed services. As a result, the contributions that ecosystem services (natural capital provided by healthy forests, rivers, and other habitats) contribute to a country’s economy are not accounted for. Today, many groups, including NGOs, research institutions, the World Bank and governments are emphasizing the importance of a system for natural capital accounting that will more accurately assess a country’s true wealth. This Working Group will focus on helping Rwanda, one of the World Bank’s core implementing countries for natural capital accounting, determine the value of non-market services in two priority landscapes. The results of this work will directly support Rwanda’s development planning process, as well as underpin the central role of natural capital in economic output. Beyond Rwanda, the results will give impetus to efforts by global initiatives, such as the UN’s Green Economy, and provide a pathway for other governments committed to including natural capital accounting in their goals for, and measures of, economic growth.




Applying innovative mapping tools to help stakeholders achieve zero-deforestation supply chains
In response to global demand for sustainable production of goods, hundreds of companies have promised to stop producing, buying, and selling agricultural commodities grown on recently deforested land. But the current method available to support managers’ efforts to do this is inadequate for several reasons: it is complex, expensive, and may limit the success of wildlife conservation in associated forests. This Working Group brings together experts in remote sensing, conservation biology, landscape ecology, and supply chain management to understand the technical and financial barriers faced when seeking zero-deforestation supply chains.


The SNAPP Approach

Learn more about the SNAPP model and approach through these multimedia products.

Podcast: How SNAPP Works

NCEAS Senior Fellow Jai Ranganathan interviews two researchers from SNAPP working groups about how SNAPP enables science-driven solutions.


The Science for Nature and People Partnership is generously funded by Shirley and Harry Hagey, Steve and Roberta Denning, Seth Neiman, Angela Nomellini and Ken Olivier, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Ward W. and Priscilla B. Woods, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and the blue moon fund.

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Current Research Projects

Arctic Data Center

Principal Investigators:
Matthew Jones, Sheekela Baker-Yeboah, Amber Budden, Jeff Dozier, and Mark Schildhauer

Making Data Count

Principal Investigators:
P. Cruse, M Jones, C. Strasser, M. Fenner

LTER: Metacommunities

Principal Investigators:
Eric R. Sokol (MCM), Cristopher M.Swan (BES), & Nathan I. Wisnoski (AND)

Conservation and Resource Management

NCEAS working groups have generated conservation solutions informed by interdisciplinary perspectives. Here is a sampling of their most influential studies, many of which have informed conservation and resource management.

Click to expand the accordions below.

Protecting Threatened Species


Scientists have used a range of methods to evaluate species’ conservation status, often with very different results. Although threatened species lists can provide a simplified measure of extinction risk for policy purposes, in this widely cited paper, Possingham et al. (2002) suggested such lists may be unsuitable for certain decision-making processes like determining resource allocation and siting reserves. They argued that threatened species lists should be only one piece of a more comprehensive process when assessing the state of the environment and setting priorities for conserving biodiversity.


A key component of the Endangered Species Act is the development of recovery plans for all listed species by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service. NCEAS researchers Boersma et al. (2001) led a team of scientists and graduate students in the first analytical study to assess the effectiveness of these plans and their implementation. Their findings include the importance of nonfederal participation in plan development, suggest that clear links to species biology improve prospects for species recovery, and strongly recommended better monitoring of management outcomes.


The Endangered Species Act allows private landowners to “take” listed species, provided they develop Habitat Conservation Plans. The rapid proliferation of these plans in recent decades has raised concerns that they are not scientifically sound. Kareiva et al. (1999) led a nationwide group in the first quantitative assessment of existing plans, finding that many did not adequately incorporate scientific standards. Their work resulted in a response from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which said it disagreed with the report but would incorporate its recommendations.

Conservation Planning


NCEAS scientists have made significant contributions to the science of reserve design. A key component of this science is overcoming the difficulty of incomplete data when siting reserves. To address this gap, conservation planners often use flagship species (charismatic species that attract public interest) or umbrella species (species that require large areas of habitat that simultaneously support many other species) in guiding recommendations. Andelman and Fagan (1999) challenged this approach, finding that none of these surrogate schemes did a significantly better job of protecting biodiversity than would result from targeting a random selection of species.


At the 1992 IUCN World Parks Congress, international conservation leaders proposed a target of 10% global protected area coverage. A decade later, they announced that this target had been surpassed. In a widely cited paper published in Nature, however, Rodrigues et al. (2004) identified the limitations behind setting “one size fits all” targets for protected areas, arguing that little work had been done to analyze whether the global protected area network fulfilled its goal of protecting biodiversity. Their synthesis of five global datasets on species distribution identified major gaps in the network’s coverage of biodiversity, concluding that while uniform conservation targets are politically expedient, they may be inadequate to meet conservation goals.


Conservation goals often focus on large spatial scales, but a widely cited study by Groves et al. (2002) highlighted the need for a more tailored regional approach. With support from The Nature Conservancy, the authors developed a seven-step framework for developing regional conservation plans. This conservation planning framework, also adapted into a book, Drafting a Conservation Blueprint: A Practitioner’s Guide to Planning for Biodiversity, continues to be a critical resource in conservation planning.


Climate change can alter habitat availability, species distributions, and ecosystem processes, often in disproportionate and unpredictable ways. An NCEAS study by Lawler et al. (2010) explored methods to better predict these impacts and identify management strategies in the face of uncertainty. Using case studies in the Central Valley of California, the Klamath River headwaters, and North Carolina’s Alligator River, the authors discovered that a flexible adaptive management approach is necessary when dealing with uncertain climate impacts. They also identified certain management strategies, such as species translocation, which are dependent on specific climate scenarios, while other strategies are more likely to be effective across a range of future climate possibilities.


Invasive species can place significant stress on native populations. Prior to work by Parker et al. (1999), however, few efforts had been made to define these impacts or connect them to ecological theory, making it difficult to pinpoint the most harmful invaders. These scientists argued that the impact of an invasive species depends on its range, abundance, and the per-biomass effect of the invasion, while acknowledging spatial variation and possible nonlinearities. New modeling approaches are suggested for evaluating and predicting invasive species impacts.


Making the connection between species populations and the habitats they rely on is critical to conservation, but these connections can be difficult to understand and restore in complex landscapes. In an effort to shed light on this area, McRae et al. (2008) explored an innovative application of electrical circuit theory to understanding ecological connectivity. Their work related resistance, voltage, and current to ecological processes like individual movement and gene flow. Applying circuit models to management questions can inform identification of important habitats and corridors.

Reducing Uncertainty in Decision-Making


Resources for conservation are scarce. With a focus on maximizing the returns of conservation initiatives, Murdoch et al. (2007) demonstrated how a return-on-investment approach borrowed from the business world can help prioritize conservation options. Using two examples—land purchasing of US temperate forest habitat and resource allocation between conservation actions in Mediterranean habitats—these authors found that costs can vary by orders of magnitude between different management options. They also found a poor correlation between costs and biodiversity outcomes, indicating the potential for dramatically reducing conservation costs by applying a return on investment approach.


When making decisions about species protection, there is often a tradeoff between the best possible outcome and increased uncertainty. NCEAS scientists Regan et al. (2005) used a case study on the Sumatran rhino to evaluate how much uncertainty conservation scientists and managers can tolerate before pursuing a different conservation option. The study concludes that accounting for uncertainty can shift decisions regarding the best management plan for some species, highlighting the importance of a full uncertainty assessment in conservation management decisions.

Marine Conservation


Marine resource management has recently shifted to focus on ecosystems as a whole, rather than managing individual species. In collaboration with the Packard Foundation, NCEAS researchers developed a holistic perspective of the science behind ecosystem-based management, both in the United States and in tropical ecosystems. Crowder et al. (2006) noted that in the United States, at least 20 federal agencies are responsible for implementing over 140 ocean-related statutes, creating management conflicts. They argued that ocean zoning will correct failures in ocean governance and allow ecosystems to be managed comprehensively.

NCEAS scientists also developed a collection of research reports on ecosystem-based management in tropical environments, published in the Coastal Management Special Issue: Tropical Marine Ecosystem-Based Management Feasibility (2009). Focusing on the Philippines, Hawaii, and the Benguela Current, these studies responded to critical questions about how to integrate community governance and ecosystem-based management.


Leveraging the latest marine spatial planning (MSP) tools, scientists at NCEAS have been leaders in developing the theory of marine protected areas (MPAs). Over 50 NCEAS publications have used science to inform the design and implementation of MPAs, in order to optimize their effectiveness for conservation and fisheries management. NCEAS scientists were at the forefront of two important collections of cutting edge marine reserve research: the Ecological Applications Supplement: The Science of Marine Reserves (2003) and the PNAS Marine Reserves Special Feature (2010). All of the publications in the Ecological Applications Supplement and a quarter of the studies featured by PNAS were NCEAS products that integrated marine spatial planning, ecosystem-based management, and MPAs science to provide comprehensive analysis and recommendations.

In one project, Halpern and colleagues were some of the first researchers to go beyond studying marine reserves on an individual basis to explore global trends in how marine life responds to reserve protection. Halpern and Warner (2002) synthesized data from 80 marine reserves and concluded that, overall, there was higher species density, biomass, size, and biodiversity of organisms in marine reserves compared to unprotected areas. They found that marine life responded quickly (1-3 years) to reserve protection and that positive changes last through time.


In a highly-cited Science paper, Worm et al. (2009) found that 63% of assessed fish stocks worldwide still require rebuilding and recommended merging diverse management approaches, from catch limits to closed areas. They also acknowledged that management is particularly complicated for small-scale fisheries in poorer regions, and that scientifically assessed stocks represent only a small fraction of global fisheries. This work was presented to Congressional staff and at congressional hearings on the reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act. The SNAP Data-Limited Fisheries Working Group is developing new approaches for management of unassessed stocks and small-scale fisheries.


A 2008 study published in Science synthesized 17 datasets to produce a global map of the cumulative human impacts in the ocean. In this high-profile paper, Halpern and colleagues found that while there are no areas of the ocean unaffected by human influence, large areas of relatively little human impact do remain, particularly near the poles. Additionally, over a third of the world’s oceans (41%) are highly impacted by anthropogenic drivers of change like fishing and pollution. This spatial representation of anthropogenic impacts informs conservation and management efforts, spatial planning, education, and basic research. Find out more about how this map was created and download the data here.

Available Data in the KNB Repository

In support of open science, NCEAS encourages data publication in online repositories. Below are a few examples of freely available NCEAS datasets pertinent to conservation and resource management research:

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