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Ecosystems We Research

The Nation’s ecosystems are complex, dynamic, and exposed to a rapidly changing climate among other threats.  USGS scientists study how ecosystems function, the impacts of stressors, and make predictions about their future to improve restoration and management outcomes.

USGS conducts ecosystem research across the Nation’s public lands to provide scientific information to improve their management, restoration, and conservation.  


Three caribou from the Porcupine Herd standing on the tundra
Three caribou standing in the tundra.  These caribou are part of the Porcupine caribou herd.

Alaska Bioregions and Arctic

Changing Arctic Ecosystems Initiative  

Alaska is simultaneously a landscape of extremes requiring specialized adaptations by plants and animals to survive the winters and a landscape of abundance that supports breeding birds each summer from as far away as Africa. Terrestrial Alaska also supports iconic species such as caribou and muskoxen whose population dynamics, predator/prey relationships and habitat ecology are researched by USGS scientists. Alaska is also bounded by 3 oceans and has a strong marine connection. USGS scientists conduct research that informs the management and conservation ecosystems that supports species such as sea ducks, seabirds, walrus, and polar bears.      


Coastal and Offshore Ecosystems

Estuaries, Corals, Marshes, Freshwater Forests, Outer Continental Shelf

Coastal ecosystems vary with the combination of terrestrial and marine systems that come together along approximately 152,888 km of U.S. shoreline from Alaska to the US Virgin Islands. USGS ecologists conduct research to anticipate future changes in productivity, structure, and function because they can have major implications for management of this wildlife habitat and its services such as coastal protection.  

Earth’s largest ecosystem is the marine environment and USGS ecologists may travel thousands of miles offshore to explore below the ocean’s surface.  Above the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf, scientists study how fish and wildlife use habitats also in demand for trawl fishing, wind farm placement, fossil fuel extraction, sand leases and ship traffic.  In the Deep Sea, 200 m below the ocean surface, USGS scientists are making discoveries among the deep-sea corals, canyons, abyssal plains, seeps, and vents to inform activities such as mining for critical minerals and better understand past climate changes.   


A NPS land manager and a USGS scientists work to install an experimental garden


There are four deserts in the United States. Three “hot deserts” receive precipitation in the summer months (Mojave, Sonoran, Chihuahuan) and one “cold desert” which receives precipitation in the winter (Great Basin).  In deserts, short term physical disturbance can produce impacts lasting more than 100 years.  In addition to conducting research to facilitate desert recovery, USGS scientists must also incorporate the impacts of climate change on these systems.  One of the most challenging questions is how urbanization and climate change will impact the management of the deserts’ most limited resource: water. 



Freshwater Systems

Ranging from Springtime temporary pools to the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River, freshwater systems play many important roles in the environment. USGS scientists conduct research on these roles and how they may be and are being impacted by climate change, contaminants, harmful algal blooms and an increased demand for water. Decisions about water use and storage will affect the distribution and persistence of several imperiled taxa. 


Overhead view of a series of lakes surrounded by green crops.
Overview of the Prairie Pothole region. Courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.


Great Plains and Prairie Potholes  

America’s grasslands support almost half of America’s breeding waterfowl, millions of songbirds refueling during migration, and historically, millions of bison, pronghorn, and elk.  Since European settlement, approximately half of all grasslands have been converted to cultivated cropland and other uses.  USGS scientists conduct research to support the restoration of the floristic composition and hydrology of the grasslands while simultaneously managing for the persistence of native biodiversity and evaluating management impacts on the ability of grasslands to store Carbon.  



Forests are a key component of a healthy ecosystem. Management of these resources is vital to their protection as a recreational resource as well as an environmental resource.



Mountain ecosystems are highly sensitive to climate change, and USGS is conducting montane research across the West to help resource managers plan now for the future. Coordination with scientists around the world has led to mountain research networks to expand our understanding of how these ecosystems respond to climate change. 


Social and Economic Analyses 

USGS economists and social scientists conduct economic and social science research in the context of natural resource management to deliver information used by resource managers to maximize and sustain economic and social benefits from natural resources to the American public.