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Dr. William H. Schlesinger

President Emeritus, Biogeochemist | PhD, 1976, Cornell University

Expertise: 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.

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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Schlesinger, William H. 2015. “Ecological Objectives Can Be Achieved With Wood-Derived Bioenergy, Reply To Dale Et Al.”. Frontiers In Ecology And The Environment 13 (6): 299 - 299. doi:10.1890/15.WB.012.
Schlesinger, William H., Michael C. Dietze, R.B. Jackson, Richard P. Phillips, C. C. Rhoades, Lindsey E. Rustad, and J. M. Vose. 2015. “Forest Biogeochemistry In Response To Drought”. Global Change Biology 22 (7): 2318 - 2328. doi:10.1111/gcb.2016.22.issue-710.1111/gcb.13105.
Billings, Sharon A., and William H. Schlesinger. 2015. “Letter To The Editor On ‘Pyrogenic Organic Matter Production From Wildfires: A Missing Sink In The Global Carbon Cycle’”. Global Change Biology 21 (8): 2831 - 2831. doi:10.1111/gcb.2015.21.issue-810.1111/gcb.12836.
Stewart, J., A.J. Parsons, J. Wainwright, G. Okin, B. T. Bestelmeyer, E. L. Fredrickson, and William H. Schlesinger. 2014. “Modeling Emergent Patterns Of Dynamic Desert Ecosystems”. Ecological Monographs 84 (3): 373 - 410. doi:10.1890/12-1253.1.
Schlesinger, William H., and Scott Jasechko. 2014. “Transpiration In The Global Water Cycle”. Agricultural And Forest Meteorology 189-190: 115 - 117. doi:10.1016/j.agrformet.2014.01.011.
Schlesinger, William H. 2014. “Who Plays Well At The Feeder”. Wings Over Dutchess: Newsletter Of The Ralph T. Waterman Bird Club.
Lutz, Brian D., Emily S. Bernhardt, and William H. Schlesinger. 2013. “The Environmental Price Tag On A Ton Of Mountaintop Removal Coal”. Plos One 8 (9): e73203. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.007320310.1371/journal.pone.0073203.g00110.1371/journal.pone.0073203.g00210.1371/journal.pone.0073203.t00110.1371/journal.pone.0073203.t00210.1371/journal.pone.0073203.s001.
Schlesinger, William H. 2013. “An Estimate Of The Global Sink For Nitrous Oxide In Soils”. Global Change Biology. doi:10.1111/gcb.12239.
Pinder, Robert W., Neil D. Bettez, Gordon B. Bonan, Tara L. Greaver, William R. Wieder, William H. Schlesinger, and Eric A. Davidson. 2013. “Impacts Of Human Alteration Of The Nitrogen Cycle In The Us On Radiative Forcing”. Biogeochemistry 114 (1-3): 25 - 40. doi:10.1007/s10533-012-9787-z.

Translational Ecology Blog