The Department of Environmental Sciences has achieved prominence among national and international environmental science programs by integrating various scientific areas to address complex global environmental problems. Faculty members intermingle as members of interdisciplinary research teams, such as the Global Environmental Change Program (GECP), the Shenandoah Watershed Study (SWAS), the Virginia Coast Reserve Long-Term Ecological Research Program (VCR LTER), and the Program of Interdisciplinary Research in Contaminant Hydrogeology (PIRCH). These Programs, and others as described in the following web pages, are reflective of the collaborative nature of our research programs and have resulted in significant scholastic accomplishment.
Terrestrial ecologists in the Department of Environmental Sciences study and teach a broad range of topics in population, community and ecosystem ecology. Research in terrestrial plant ecology focuses on the interactions among climate, vegetation and soils, and the temporal dynamics of vegetation in response to a changing environment. The cycling of carbon, nitrogen and other nutrients is an essential integrator of many research efforts. Ecological studies of terrestrial animals focus on the habitat, behavior and population dynamics of a variety of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and insects. Terrestrial ecology research spans spatial scales from landscapes to regions to the globe, and ecosystem types include grasslands, savannas, temperate and tropical forests, boreal forests, tundra, and managed ecosystems. In addition to field and greenhouse experiments, we incorporate a variety of research tools, including geographic information systems, remotely sensed imagery and computer simulation modeling.
Although there is no formal program in Marine Studies at the University of Virginia, a large number of faculty in the Department of Environmental Sciences have active research programs in marine environments. These include studies of the impact of storms on coastal environments, vegetation in marsh, lagoon and barrier island systems, evidence for climate change in ocean sediments, and isotopic studies related to hydrothermal vents. The Department maintains a field station on the Eastern Shore of Virginia as part of NSF’s Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) program where interdiscplinary studies are underway of ecological and physical processes in a barrier island environment.
The atmospheric sciences program at U.Va. focuses on relationships between atmospheric processes and the Earth’s biosphere and hydrosphere on a variety of spatial and temporal scales. Areas of specialization within the Department include: synoptic and dynamic climatology; air quality and visibility; atmospheric chemistry; modeling of acid depositions and trace gas transport; mesoscale meteorology and climatology; convective storms; and coastal processes. Fields of application within atmospheric sciences include: air pollution; bioclimatology and agricultural management; and meteorology and climatology research consulting.
Research in geomorphology and surface processes at the University of Virginia spans terrestrial, marine and planetary environments and ranges from particle-scale to the scale of drainage basins. Modeling oriented studies include simulations of drainage basin evolution and sediment transport on the continental shelf. Field studies include effects of floods and debris flows on stream channels, sediment erosion and deposition in coastal wetlands and physical controls on the distribution of beachface fauna.
Within the Department there is a strong focus on the interactions between the Earth’s surface and its atmosphere. These efforts integrate hydrological, ecological, and meteorological principles to understand the exchange of water, heat, and trace gases between the land and the atmosphere. Much of the interest in these mass and energy fluxes centers on the nonlinear feedback effects between the surface and the atmosphere, and the resulting impacts to the biosphere and atmosphere.
Aqueous geochemists, hydrolgists, and microbial ecologists interact on a number of hydrogeological problems. Topics under investigation include: modeling of catchment hydrochemistry; bioremediation and biodegradation; solute, colloid, and bacterial transport through porous media; and modeling of groundwater flow, mass transport, and biogeochemical reactions. The Program of Interdisciplinary Research in Contaminant Hydrogeology (PIRCH) focuses on problems of contaminant hydrogeology, and involves researchers from Chemical and Civil Engineering.
Ecohydrology is the science which relates hydrologic processes to ecosystem dynamics. This type of inquiry is fundamental to the understanding of the coupling existing between the water cycle and the biota. For example, Ecohydrology investigates the main hydrologic controls on the structure and function of terrestrial ecosystems. Some of these controls are exerted through the soil water balance, which mediates the impact of hydrologic processes on the dynamics of plant and soil microbial communities. Low values of soil moisture lead to the emergence of water stress conditions both in vegetation and in soil micro-organisms, thereby limiting the rates of photosynthesis, transpiration, microbial respiration, and soil organic matter decomposition. On the other hand, the anoxic conditions associated with soil saturation limit plant productivity, microbial decomposition, and mineralization, while providing favorable conditions for the biogenic emissions of nitrogen oxides (denitrification) and methane. Thus, the study of plant and microbial response to changes in hydrologic conditions requires the analysis of fluctuations both in root-zone soil moisture and in water table depth. Ecohydrology is also concerned with the biotic controls on hydrologic processes, including infiltration, runoff, water table dynamics, evapotranspiration and precipitation.
Researchers in the Department bring together physical and social sciences to understand how humans interact with the global Earth system.
The Department undergraduate research mentoring program seeks to connect undergraduate students who are interested in gaining experience with scientific research in the environmental sciences with graduate students who can provide those opportunities.