Dr. Cole's research focuses on the interface between microbiology and biogeochemistry in aquatic ecosystems. In almost any system, microorganisms are responsible for most of the aerobic respiration and all of the anaerobic respiration. Thus, the production of carbon dioxide, methane, sulfide as well as the regeneration of other inorganic nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus) is largely due to the activities of these microorganisms. Cole is particularly interested in the biotic and abiotic regulation of microbial metabolism, energy flow and carbon cycles in lakes, rivers and marine systems.
More recently Cole has been working on the fates of terrestrial C in aquatic systems and the role that inland waters have on the global carbon balance (see Cole et al. 2007, Cole 2012, below). It turns out that inland waters are quite significant in both the global and regional balances of C both in terms of the storage of organic C in lake and reservoir sediments and in the oxidation of terrestrially derived organic materials. These terrestrially derived organic materials also have the potential to subsidize aquatic food webs.
Work with colleagues Mike Pace, Steve Carpenter, Jim Kitchell, Jim Hodgson and many others, Cole has shown, that many aquatic organisms in lakes are comprised in part of organic matter that was produced on land rather than in the water (see Cole et al. 2006; Cole et al. 2011; Wilkinson et al. 2012 a,b). With colleagues Nina Caraco, Jim Bauer, Peter Raymond and Steve Petsch, Cole worked with ambient levels of radiocarbon (14C) and demonstrated that some organisms in the Hudson River are not only made of terrestrial carbon, but carbon that was created by photosynthesis more than 1000 years ago (see Caraco et al. 2010, Cole and Solomon 2012, below).
What Cole wants to know is, are fish, like the pike in the picture, made entirely out of materials that were produced in the water, or made from terrestrial organic matter that washes in from the watershed. Dr. Mats Jansson (from Umea Sweden) who took this picture is interested in the same question. Unfortunately on that day Mats caught only smaller pike.
From 2009-2013, Cole was the Reviews Editor for Limnology and Oceanography, one of the journals of the Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography (ASLO). Cole served as President of ASLO from 2004-2006. In 2010 Cole was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; in 2011 he was elected a Fellow of the American Geophysical Union (AGU; www.agu.org/) and was elected into the National Academy of Science in 2014 Cole has been an ISI Highly Cited Researcher since 2003. Cole has been a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement for Science (AAAS) since 2001.
In 2003, Cole was awarded the Ecology Institute Prize (ECI) for Excellence in Limnetic Ecology. The ECI prize is given in alternating years for Terrestrial Ecology, Marine Ecology, and Limnetic (Freshwater) Ecology. A requirement of this prize is to write a book. Cole’s book covers the roles that inland waters play in regional to global cycles and includes two chapters on this idea of terrestrial support of aquatic food webs (Cole 2012; Freshwater Ecosystems and the Carbon Cycle).