Within the Department, ecology covers a wide range of topics from nutrient cycling to ecological energetics. Specialties include terrestrial, aquatic, marine, and population ecology; resource conservation; and management of ecosystem resources. Fields of application within ecology include: aquatic ecology; fisheries consulting; forestry and agricultural management; parks and recreation; planning and management; resource conservation; toxic soil and water pollution research.
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.
Also part of: Hydrology
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.
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.