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The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center is the leading national research center for understanding environmental issues in the coastal zone. The world’s coastal zones are home to more than 70 percent of the global population and subject to intense economic activity. SERC ecologists conduct interdisciplinary studies at its headquarters on Chesapeake Bay and in coasts around the world, from Alaska to the tropics of Central America to the seas of the South Pole.
SERC research focuses on six main issues: invasive species, global change, biodiversity, food webs, land use, and nutrient and toxic chemical pollution. Highlights include:
- Aquatic invasions. SERC is the national center for analyzing invasive species patterns in marine and estuarine ecosystems. The Marine Invasions Laboratory measures species invasion through field surveys of all U.S. coastal states and many international ports. It also includes the National Ballast Information Clearinghouse, a database in which commercial ships operating in U.S. waters report how they manage their ballast water—a major method by which ships can inadvertently transport invasive species.
- The Global Change Research Wetland is an experimental marsh dedicated to forecasting the fate of tidal wetlands under various global changes predicted in the future. Begun in 1987, the site supports several unique long-term experiments and datasets on sea-level rise, nitrogen pollution, invasive species, soil elevation change and carbon dynamics, including the world’s longest-running field experiment on ecosystem responses to elevated CO2.
- Biodiversity. SERC has built a 35-year database on species composition and populations dynamics of plants and animals in the Chesapeake Bay region. SERC scientists track the patterns of biodiversity of native and invasive species in the bays and estuaries of North America.
- Forest Ecosystems. SERC conducts extensive research on forest ecosystems. SERC leads and manages the temperate zone component of ForestGEO, a global network tracking how more than 60 forests on six continents are responding to climate change and other factors. SERC ecologists measure long-term (30-year) changes in a plot of mapped trees in the Eastern hardwood forest on SERC property spanning over 100 acres. In 2013, its scientists planted BiodiversiTree, an experimental forest designed to explore the effects of tree species diversity on forest ecosystem functions for 100 years. SERC is also a leader in the ecology of mangroves, the key shoreline forests of the tropics.
- Chesapeake Bay. SERC research focuses on human impacts on Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in the United States. Long-term records, some stretching back 30 to 50 years, track water quality, plankton blooms, food web dynamics, blue crab ecology, fish populations, host–parasite interactions, wetland functions, invasive species, and other indicators of Bay health. All these variables relate to human land use, climate change, fisheries management, invasive species, pollution regulations and discharges from the watershed.
- Pollution. SERC is a leader in research on nutrient pollution, especially on the sources, transfer and impacts of fertilizer from farmland and developed land to coastal waters. SERC also has experts on toxic chemical pollution by heavy metals, particularly mercury.
- Land use and its consequences. Research at SERC on how land use impacts water quality has revealed the vital role of streamside forests in preventing nutrient runoff from agriculture and coastal development into estuaries.
Publications and Conference Participation
SERC scientists have published more than 2,500 scientific papers, journal articles and books about ecological dynamics and human interactions with the environment. SERC staff and fellows give more than 300 talks in workshops and conferences annually.
Education and Public Programs
To prepare the next generation of environmental scientists, SERC provides educational opportunities for students from kindergarten through the postdoctoral level. SERC has trained more than 2,000 undergraduate interns and approximately 600 postdoctoral, doctoral and graduate student fellows from more than 150 colleges and universities. On average, 55 interns and 25 fellows participate in SERC’s professional training program annually.
A variety of hands-on science experiences and environmental field trips are available for school groups, giving students a chance to test water quality, explore oyster bars and seine for fish and crabs in the river. Teacher workshops offer scientific training, continuing education and environmental curricula. SERC’s education department also offers programs for the general public, including an evening lecture series, guided canoe expeditions through the estuary and an annual open house. For drop-in visitors, the SERC campus is open for hiking, biking and kayaking six days per week.
SERC coordinates an active Citizen Science Program that involves more than 500 volunteers in diverse environmental research, including forest ecology, fisheries, invasive species and habitat restoration projects.
Established in 1965, SERC’s campus sits in Edgewater, Md., 25 miles from Washington, D.C. The site encompasses 2,650 acres of land and 15 miles of protected shoreline along the Rhode and West Rivers, two embayments of Chesapeake Bay. The landscape serves as a natural laboratory for long-term ecological research and experiments on the interactions of land, water and air in the coastal zone.
SERC scientists base their research at its headquarters in Maryland, but extend their studies around the world, using Chesapeake Bay as a model for ecological processes and human impacts in other areas. Comparative studies stretch across the globe, from the Indian River Lagoon in Florida, the Meso-American barrier reef off Belize and the tropical ecosystems of the Panamanian isthmus, to Prince William Sound in Alaska and the Southern Ocean.
Budget and Staff
The center’s current annual budget is approximately $12 million (federal and trust). The staff of more than 100 full-time employees has expertise in terrestrial and marine ecology, zoology, physiology, biology and microbiology. Maintenance and security comprise 48 additional staff. The center’s environmental education staff interprets and communicates research findings to schoolchildren and to the public through onsite educational programs, videoconferences and the website. A vast network of collaborators within the United States and worldwide uses SERC’s research facilities.
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