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Carbon Cycle & Ecosystems

The Earth's ecosystems and biogeochemical cycles (such as carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus) both drive and respond to environmental changes ranging from local to global scales. These current environmental changes appear to be unprecedented, in both timing and geographical extent. Major uncertainties in Earth science originate from the dynamics and interactions within and between ecosystems and their biogeochemical cycles across land, ocean, atmosphere, and human activities. Resolution of uncertainties is needed because of the profound implications for future climate, food production, biodiversity, sustainable resource management, etc. Thus, several programs in the Earth Science Division coordinate their activities and facilitate interdisciplinary inquiry about Earth's carbon cycle and ecosystems.  Their overarching science goal is to:

Detect and predict changes in Earth’s ecosystems and biogeochemical cycles, including land cover, biodiversity, and the global carbon cycle.

This goal leads to several science questions addressed by programs in the CC&E Focus Area:

  • How are global ecosystems changing?
  • What trends in atmospheric constituents and solar radiation are driving global climate 
  • What changes are occurring in global land cover and land use, and what are their causes?
  • How do ecosystems, land cover and biogeochemical cycles respond to and affect global environmental change?
  • What are the consequences of land cover and land use change for human societies and the sustainability of ecosystems?
  • What are the consequences of climate change and increased human activities for coastal regions?**
  • How will carbon cycle dynamics and terrestrial and marine ecosystems change in the future?

** indicates questions the CC&E Focus Area shares with other Earth Science Focus Areas. 

The Carbon Cycle and Ecosystems Focus Area includes the following programs: (i) Terrestrial Ecology, (ii) Ocean Biology and Biogeochemistry, (iii) Land Cover/ Land Use Change; (iv) Biological Diversity; and Ecological Forecasting and Water Resources (both part of the Applied Sciences Program). For more information, please visit the Carbon Cycle and Ecosystems Office website.

Carbon Cycle & Ecosystems Program Areas:

Terrestrial Ecology

Research activities in Terrestrial Ecology address changes in the global carbon cycle and ecosystem structure and function using space-based observations.  The goal is to improve our understanding of the structure and function of terrestrial ecosystems around the world, their interactions with the atmosphere and hydrosphere, and their role in the cycling of major biogeochemical cycles. The program’s research approach combines the use of remote sensing tools to observe terrestrial ecosystems and their responses to variable forcings through field campaigns and process studies as well as collaborative studies in ecosystem and biogeochemical cycle modeling to analyze and predict emergent ecosystem properties.  An important component of the Terrestrial Ecology program focuses on research to establish a theoretical basis for measuring Earth’s surface properties and developing the appropriate methodologies and technical approaches to analyze and interpret such measurements.

Ocean Biology and Biogeochemistry (OBB)

The Ocean Biology and Biogeochemistry Program (OBB) focuses on describing, understanding, and predicting the biological and biogeochemical regimes of the upper ocean, as determined by observation of aquatic optical properties using remote sensing data, including those from space, aircraft, and other suborbital platforms. Scientific issues of interest to the program include: the impact of pollutants and hazards to the biology and hydrology of coastal zones, changes in the diversity and geographical distribution of coastal marine habitats and the implications for the well-being of human society, biogeochemical fluxes and their influence in Earth's oceans and climate over time, and finally the impact of climate and environmental variability and change on ocean ecosystems and the biodiversity they support.

Land Cover/Land Use Change (LCLUC)

The Land Cover/Land Use Change program is developing and using NASA remote sensing tools, via an interdisciplinary approach that envelops aspects of physical, social and economic sciences, to further our understanding of human interactions with the environment and the interconnection between terrestrial ecosystems and sustainability, vulnerability and resilience of human land use and land cover change. Some of the key elements of the program include: the monitoring and modeling of LCLUC, interactions of LCLUC with the carbon and water cycles, LCLUC feedbacks with the climate system, and LCLUC impacts on ecosystems, biodiversity, environmental goods and services, and the management of natural resources.The program’s long-term goal is to facilitate the development of the capability to complete repeated global inventories of land-use and land-cover from space, and to predict land-use and land-cover changes and their direct and indirect impacts on the Earth’s system and society.

Biological Diversity

The Biological Diversity research program uses NASA observations and models to improve our understanding of biodiversity, how and why it is changing, and its effects on and interactions with the Earth system. NASA explores patterns of biodiversity on land and in water using observations from satellites, airborne and seaborne platforms, and in situ surveys. These observations are well-suited for detecting such patterns, especially at the ecosystem level, but also at finer community and species levels. Through a combination of observations and models, NASA further seeks to understand the geophysical and ecological processes that result in the patterns of biodiversity our observations detect. This process-oriented research aligns the Biological Diversity research program with activities of other NASA Earth Science programs, such as efforts to track the biogeochemical cycling of elements like carbon and studies of the water cycle.

Ecological Forecasting

As part of NASA Applied Sciences, Ecological Forecasting is an applications activity that employs observations and models to predict the impacts of environmental change on ecosystems. It focuses on conservation and natural resource management and integrates information from the physical, biological, and social sciences to promote synthesis across the domains of physics, geology, chemistry, biology, and psychology.The goal is reliable forecasts that provide decision makers with access to science-based tools in order to project changes in living systems.

Water Resources

The Water Resources Applications area supports the use of Earth observations in water resources management related to water demand, supply, and quality. The program includes five functional themes: drought; stream flow and flood forecasting; evapotranspiration and irrigation; water quality; and climate effects on water resources.

Crosscutting Activities:

Carbon Monitoring System   

The Carbon Monitoring System (CMS) is jointly shared across the Terrestrial Ecology and Atmospheric Composition programs.  The CMS is directed through a 2010 Congressional Appropriation and is a forward-looking activity designed to develop a prototype carbon monitoring system based on scientific research towards characterizing, quantifying, understanding, and predicting the evolution of carbon sources and sinks from regional to global scales through improved quantification of carbon reservoirs and fluxes. Active research in the CMS are primarily with land/atmosphere exchange, however, a few ocean/atmosphere awards are in the current portfolio.

North American Carbon Program

The North American Carbon Program (NACP) is a multidisciplinary research program to obtain scientific understanding of North America's carbon sources and sinks and of changes in carbon stocks needed to meet societal concerns and to provide tools for decision makers. Successful execution of the NACP will require an unprecedented level of coordination among observational, experimental, and modeling efforts regarding terrestrial, oceanic, atmospheric, and human components. The NACP is supported by a number of different federal agencies through a variety of intramural and extramural funding mechanisms and award instruments. NACP will rely upon a rich and diverse array of existing observational networks, monitoring sites, and experimental field studies in North America and its adjacent oceans. Integrating these different program activities and maximizing synergy amongst them, will require expert guidance beyond the norm for large field programs in Earth system science and global climate change.

Ocean Carbon & Biochemistry

The Ocean Carbon and Biogechemistry Program (OCB) was established in 2006 as one of the major activities of the U.S. Carbon Cycle Science Program, an interagency body that coordinates and facilitates activities relevant to carbon cycle science, climate, and global change issues. The scientific mission of OCB is to study the evolving role of the ocean in the global carbon cycle, in the face of environmental variability and change through studies of marine biogeochemical cycles and associated ecosystems.

Associated Earth Science Division Missions, Instruments, and Data Sets




Satellite Missions

Landsat 7
LDCM/ Landsat 8
GPM Core
Suborbital Investigations: Instruments Ocean Buoys
EOS Land Validation Sites
GPM Ground Validation Network
Suborbital Investigations: Aircraft Missions CARVE
HyspIRI Preparatory Airborne
FTIR: Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy
Satellite Missions OCO-3
Satellite Missions JPSS-1
Satellite Missions NMP/EO-1


ROSES Solicitations

For solicited program elements relevant to Carbon Cycle & Ecosystems, search for and view open, closed, and future Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Sciences (ROSES) NASA Research Announcements (NRAs) on the NASA Solicitation and Proposal Integrated Review and Evaluation System (NSPIRES) website.

Here is a list of 2015 solicited program elements:

A.2 Land Cover/ Land Use Change (LCLUC)

A.3 Ocean Biology and Biogeochemistry

A.4 Terrestrial Ecology

A.5 Carbon Cycle Science

A.6 Biodiversity

A.7 Carbon Monitoring System


Related Sites

NASA Center Organizations

Interagency / International Activities

Program Managers

Eric Kasischke
Terrestrial Ecology Program

Kathy Hibbard
Terrestrial Ecology Program

Hank Margolis
Terrestrial Ecology Program

Paula Bontempi
Ocean Biology and Biogeochemistry Program

Garik Gutman
Land Cover/Land Use Change Program

Woody Turner
Biodiversity Program

Brad Doorn
Water Resources Program, Applied Sciences

Allison Leidner
Biological Diversity Program