- Senior Global Futures Fellow, Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory
- Professor Emeritus, Biogeochemistry, Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies
Many scientists believe that forests and soils are central to solving the problem of climate change: if trees and soils can store carbon, they will stay the progress of warming. Bill Schlesinger’s research is directed at that question, providing quantitative assessments of the potential for forests and soils to sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Schlesinger has spent his career examining human impacts on the natural cycles of elements like carbon and nitrogen at the Earth’s surface. These studies are far from esoteric:
They provide estimates of the carbon content of vegetation and soils.
They show how humans have reduced the storage of carbon in forests and soils.
They reveal the potential to reverse that trend, so that forests can take up some of the carbon dioxide that is emitted to the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels.
For a number of years, Schlesinger managed the Free-Air Carbon Dioxide Enrichment (FACE) experiment in central North Carolina. Experimental plots in a pine forest were treated with levels of carbon dioxide that we expect to see in the future. As a result, forest growth in these plots increased by about 15%, but only small changes occurred in the forest soils. Thus, some additional carbon sequestration will occur in temperate forests, even without any changes in forest management practices. But even greater success in carbon sequestration will be seen by preventing tropical deforestation and by reforestation of suitable areas.
Unfortunately, with global warming, we can also expect large losses of carbon from frozen (permafrost) soils at northern latitudes. Overall, global warming is likely to lead to a loss of carbon from soils, enhancing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide.
Schlesinger is active in disseminating science to policy makers and media. He has testified about environmental issues in Congress and in state houses, and has been featured in media including National Public Radio, NOVA, the Weather Channel, Discover, National Geographic, the New York Times, and Scientific American. Schlesinger discusses a range of environmental issues in his weekly blog, Translational Ecology.
- PhD, Cornell University, 1976
- AB (cum laude), Dartmouth College, 1972
DeCicco, J. M. and W. H. Schlesinger. 2018. Opinion: Reconsidering bioenergy given the urgency of climate protection. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 115(39):9642-9645. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1814120115. (link )
Mahall, B. E., P. J. Fonteyn, R. M. Callaway and W. H. Schlesinger. 2018. A 37‐year experimental study of the effects of structural alterations on a shrub community in the Mojave Desert, California. Journal of Ecology 106(3):1057-1072. DOI: 10.1111/1365-2745.12904. (link )
Griscom, B. W., J. Adams, P. W. Ellis, R. A. Houghton, G. Lomax, D. A. Miteva, W. H. Schlesinger, D. Shoch, J. V. Siikamaki, P. Smith, P. Woodbury, C. Zganjar, A. Blackman, J. Campari, R. T. Conant, C. Delgado, P. Elias, T. Gopalakrishna, M. R. Hamsik, M. Herrero, J. Kiesecker, E. Landis, L. Laestadius, S. M. Leavitt, S. Minnemeyer, S. Polasky, P. Potapov, F. E. Putz, J. Sanderman, M. Silvius, E. Wollenberg and J. Fargione. 2017. Natural climate solutions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 114(44):11645-11650. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1710465114. (link )
Chapin III, F. S., G. M. Woodwell, J. T. Randerson, G. M. Lovett, D. Baldocchi, D. A. Clark, M. E. Harmon, D. S. Schimel, R. Valentini, C. Wirth, J. D. Aber, J. J. Cole, M. L. Goulden, J. W. Harden, M. Heimann, R. W. Howarth, P. Matson, A. D. McGuire, J. M. Melillo, H. A. Mooney, J. C. Neff, R. A. Houghton, M. L. Pace, M. G. Ryan, S. W. Running, O. E. Sala, W. H. Schlesinger and E. D. Schulze. 2006. Reconciling carbon-cycle concepts, teminology, and methods. Ecosystems 9(7):1041-1050. DOI: 10.1007/s10021-005-0105-7. (link )
Melillo, J. M., N. B. Grimm and W. H. Schlesinger. 2005. Ecology and the transition to sustainability. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 3(1):3. DOI: 10.1890/1540-9295(2005)003[0003:EATTTS]2.0.CO;2. (link )
Clark, J. S., S. R. Carpenter, M. Barber, S. Collins, A. Dobson, J. A. Foley, D. M. Lodge, M. Pascual, R. Pielke Jr, W. Pizer, C. Pringle, W. V. Reid, K. A. Rose, O. Sala, W. H. Schlesinger, D. H. Wall and D. Wear. 2001. Ecological forecasts: An emerging imperative. Science 293(5530):657-660. DOI: 10.1126/science.293.5530.657.
Knops, J. M., T. H. Nash III and W. H. Schlesinger. 1996. The influence of epiphytic lichens on the nutrient cycling of an oak woodland.. Ecological Monographs 159-179.
Grimm, N. B., J. N. Galloway, W. H. Schlesinger, C. M. Clark, R. B. Jackson, B. E. Law, P. E. Thornton and A. R. Townsend. 2014. Climate change, ecosystem services, and biogeochemical cycles. Presentation at the From Oceans to Mountains, 99th Ecological Society of America Annual Meeting, 10-15 August 2014, Sacramento, California. (link )
Galloway, J. N., W. H. Schlesinger, C. M. Clark, N. B. Grimm, R. B. Jackson, B. E. Law, P. E. Thornton, A. R. Townsend and R. A. Martin. 2014. Chapter 15: Biogeochemical cycles. Pp. 350-368 In: Melillo, J. M., T. Richmond and G. W. Yohe eds., Climate Change Impacts in the United States: The Third National Climate Assessment. (link )