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.
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.
Geomorphology is the study of how planetary landscapes change through time in response to physical, chemical, and biological processes. Researchers in the department study landscapes over a wide range of scales, from particle-scale sediment transport to the global evolution of planetary surfaces, utilizing a variety of methods including computational modeling, field studies, and experimental work. Examples of recent research projects include investigating the effects of floods and debris flows on stream channels; quantifying rates of sediment erosion and deposition in coastal wetlands; constraining fluvial modification on the surface of Mars to assess the planet’s potential for habitability; and using computational modeling to understand landscape evolution on the icy moons on Jupiter, Saturn, and other giant planets.
Research Areas: Ecology
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.
Research Areas: Atmospheric Science
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.
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.
Research Areas: Interdisciplinary
Humans interact and alter each of the earth systems studied in the department. Researchers in the department collaborate across natural and social science disciplines to better understand the interactions between humans and the environment. Recent work in this area has focused on the environmental impacts of food production, including the development of a nitrogen footprint, possibilities for yield gap closure, and mapping the global virtual water and seafood trade networks. Additional social-environmental research aims to evaluate the effect of weather events on air quality and human health, assess the possibility of credits for carbon sequestration in sea grass beds, and understand the drivers and consequences of land use change in the tropics.