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Dr. William H. Schlesinger

President Emeritus, Biogeochemist | PhD, Cornell University

global change ecology, climate change, biogeochemistry

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.

Schlesinger, William H. 2023. “Biochar And Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Comment On “Biochar As A Negative Emission Technology: A Synthesis Of Field Research On Greenhouse Gas Emissions””. Journal Of Environmental Quality 52 (6). Wiley: 1061-1061. doi:10.1002/jeq2.20518.
Subbarao, GV, JC Lata, C Gubry-Rangin, P Nannipieri, and William H. Schlesinger. 2022. “Foreword”. Biology And Fertility Of Soils. doi:10.1007/s00374-022-01622-3.
Schlesinger, William H. 2022. “Biogeochemical Constraints On Climate Change Mitigation Through Regenerative Farming”. Biogeochemistry 161 (1). Springer Science and Business Media LLC: 9-17. doi:10.1007/s10533-022-00942-8.
Law, Beverly E., William R. Moomaw, Tara W. Hudiburg, William H. Schlesinger, John D. Sterman, and George M. Woodwell. 2022. “Creating Strategic Reserves To Protect Forest Carbon And Reduce Biodiversity Losses In The United States”. Land 11 (5). MDPI AG: 721. doi:10.3390/land11050721.
Or, Dani, Thomas Keller, and William H. Schlesinger. 2021. “Natural And Managed Soil Structure: On The Fragile Scaffolding For Soil Functioning”. Soil And Tillage Research 208. Elsevier BV: 104912. doi:10.1016/j.still.2020.104912.
Schlesinger, William H., Emily Klein, Zhen Wang, and Avner Vengosh. 2021. “Global Biogeochemical Cycle Of Lithium”. Global Biogeochemical Cycles. American Geophysical Union (AGU). doi:10.1029/2021gb006999.
Schlesinger, William H. 2020. “Some Thoughts On The Biogeochemical Cycling Of Potassium In Terrestrial Ecosystems”. Biogeochemistry.
Worman, S. L., L. F. Pratson, J. A. Karson, and William H. Schlesinger. (Jun) 2020. “Abiotic Hydrogen (H-2) Sources And Sinks Near The Mid-Ocean Ridge (Mor) With Implications For The Subseafloor Biosphere”. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences Of The United States Of America 117 (24): 13283-13293+.
Anderson, Christa M., R. S. DeFries, Robert Litterman, P.A. Matson, D.C. Nepstad, Stephen W. Pacala, William H. Schlesinger, et al. 2019. “Natural Climate Solutions Are Not Enough”. Science 363 (6430): 933 - 934. doi:10.1126/science.aaw2741.
Houlton, Benjamin Z., Maya Almaraz, Viney Aneja, Amy T. Austin, Edith Bai, Kenneth G. Cassman, Jana E. Compton, et al. 2019. “A World Of Cobenefits: Solving The Global Nitrogen Challenge”. Earth's Future 7 (8). American Geophysical Union (AGU): 865-872. doi:10.1029/2019ef001222.
DeCicco, John M., and William H. Schlesinger. 2018. “Opinion: Reconsidering Bioenergy Given The Urgency Of Climate Protection”. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences 115 (39): 9642 - 9645. doi:10.1073/pnas.1814120115.
Mahall, Bruce E., Paul Fonteyn, R.M. Callaway, and William 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.
Schlesinger, William H. 2018. “Are Wood Pellets A Green Fuel?”. Science 359 (6382): 1328 - 1329. doi:10.1126/science.aat2305.
Schlesinger, William H., and Ronald Amundson. 2018. “Managing For Soil Carbon Sequestration: Let’s Get Realistic”. Global Change Biology 25 (2). doi:10.1111/gcb.14478.
Fargione, Joseph E., Steven Bassett, Timothy Boucher, Scott D. Bridgham, Richard T. Conant, Susan C. Cook-Patton, Peter W. Ellis, et al. 2018. “Natural Climate Solutions For The United States”. Science Advances 4 (11): eaat1869. doi:10.1126/sciadv.aat1869.
Griscom, Bronson W., Justin Adams, Peter W. Ellis, Richard A. Houghton, Guy Lomax, Daniela A. Miteva, and William H. Schlesinger. 2017. “Natural Climate Solutions”. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences 114 (44): 11645 - 11650. doi:10.1073/pnas.1710465114.
Schlesinger, William H. 2017. “When Science Informed Policy”. Biogeochemistry 133 (2): 127 - 128. doi:10.1007/s10533-017-0317-x.
Schlesinger, William H. 2016. “An Evaluation Of Abiotic Carbon Sinks In Deserts”. Global Change Biology. doi:10.1111/gcb.13336.
Schlesinger, William H., and Avner Vengosh. 2016. “Global Boron Cycle In The Anthropocene”. Global Biogeochemical Cycles 30 (2): 219 - 230. doi:10.1002/gbc.v30.210.1002/2015GB005266.
Zhou, Junyu, Baojing Gu, William H. Schlesinger, and Xiaotang Ju. 2016. “Significant Accumulation Of Nitrate In Chinese Semi-Humid Croplands”. Scientific Reports 6: 25088. doi:10.1038/srep25088.

Translational Ecology Blog