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National Science Foundation

Land | Background

Earth's land masses support critical ecosystems, host Earth's freshwater environments, and sustain almost all human agricultural activities. Land separates freshwater from the sea, stores nutrients essential for terrestrial and aquatic life, and holds a paleological record of Earth's climatic past.

As the Earth warms, the conditions favorable to many plant and animal species are expected to shift toward higher latitudes and higher elevations. These altered species distributions will likely cause significant disruptions to established ecosystems as habitats adjust to new species assemblages.

Land use is inextricably linked to the carbon cycle. Changing land-use patterns, such as clearing forest to create agricultural plots, changes the dynamics of the carbon cycle. Livestock such as cattle contribute a net surplus of carbon to the atmosphere in the form of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.

NSF-supported researchers study all aspects of the land-climate connection. Through observational networks, researchers gather vital data about critical ecosystems, the hydrological cycle, the timing of seasonal events such as wildflower blooms, and other critical indicators of land-based ecosystem health.

NSF also supports geologists who use cave formations, the fossils of ancient plant and animal species, and other "proxy" climate records to open a window into Earth's history, and learn how the land responded to past climate change events.