Institute at Brown for Environment and SocietyIBES

Natural Systems

How can we understand the functioning and response of Earth's natural systems in the face of rapid and pervasive global change?

Human transformation of Earth’s lands and waters, along with increasing demands for natural resources, has placed an unprecedented strain on the planet’s species and ecosystems. These forces have already led to the extinction of many species and the near-disappearance of some ecological systems. Life has been co-evolving on this planet with Earth’s atmospheres, oceans, and terrestrial systems for the last 3.5 billion years, creating the complex ecosystems of which we are a part. As we look ahead into Anthropocene, we must determine how to safeguard this diversity – and the evolutionary potential in represents – in the context of human needs and aspirations. This requires that we expand and improve our ability to understand, manage and protect natural systems. We address these questions by working across traditional disciplinary boundaries in the natural sciences.  Further, we seek to understand our relationships with these systems: Nature can be regarded as a resource, a threat, a social good, a cultural and economic necessity, central to human survival, and valued simply for its existence.

Brown researchers, spanning multiple departments, implement a variety of methods to peer into and interpret the past, from the chemical signatures of ancient organic and inorganic material to the DNA sequences of living species. Brown also has broad expertise in conservation biology and ecological interactions - ranging from tracking the effects of invasive species on ecosystem and human health, to evaluating how alternative management policies influence the stability and resilience of ecosystems in the face of climate change. This expertise allows us to ask critical questions. How do rapid climate fluctuations and other forms of disturbance influence ecosystem stability, speciation, and extinction on a global scale? What can we learn from previous and extraordinarily turbulent times in the history of life on Earth? What policies and governance structures support existing species and systems?

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