Northern Watershed Studies

Primary Research Objectives

  • Quantify long-term trends in lake and/or stream water, precipitation, and snowpack hydrology and chemistry.
  • Examine the role of vegetation, surface organic layers, and shallow soils in modifying precipitation solute concentration and flux.
  • Define terrestrial-aquatic linkages for nutrient and energy transfers.
  • Examine the effects of global change, especially climate and precipitation, on terrestrial carbon and nitrogen cycles.
  • Quantify terrestrial production of dissolved organic carbon and nitrogen, and its input to the aquatic ecosystem.
  • Quantify trends in above-gound vegetation diversity, biomass, and nutrient content.
  • Quantify long-term trends in terrestrial and aquatic ecosystem production, and define the major processes accounting for observed changes.


The Northern Watershed Ecosystem Project conducts long-term research, inventory, and monitoring in a small network of legally-protected research sites located in National Parks and Preserves. The project goal is to gain understanding of the structure and function of representative ecosystems and their response to stressors. Most sites have been under study for 20+ years. The network of sites represents a diverse set of natural ecosystems from the northern hardwood-boreal ecotone to the taiga-tundra tree line.

Conceptual Approach

Most human-induced ecosystem responses arise from a plethora of subtle, chronic, and often synergistic stresses rather than the simpler "cause-effect" relationship. A review of the literature for the last several decades suggests that to statistically detect incipient change in terrestrial ecosystems, which can occur decades before above-ground symptoms are apparent, one studies functions (processes). The principal processes studied are production, decomposition, and biogeochemical cycles. Conversely, in the aquatic system shifts in community composition, particularly plankton and benthic crustaceans, often has the most potential to detect incipient change in response to stress. In practical terms, a combination of both strategies is often applied. For policy and perhaps political reasons early detection of incipient response, and the statistical quantification of the magnitude of response, is essential. The ecosystem approach evaluates not just potential responses in one or a few species, but assesses the magnitude of effect throughout the system over the longer-term. 

Site Descriptions