Reflections on LTER beginnings, challenges, and the future

Network News Spring 2006, Vol. 19 No. 1

Learning from the past is key to long-term ecological research and to how we conduct and organize our science. My thoughts here focus on our beginnings and how far we have come. I will mention some of the challenges we face, many of which are similar to those we faced in the past.

The LTER network of sites first met in Washington, D.C. in 1980. Six just-funded sites attended (Andrews, Coweeta, Konza, Niwot, North Inlet, and North Temperate Lakes); many of us had never met before. We learned from John Brooks, then Director of the Division of Environmental Biology and James (Tom) Callahan, the first NSF Program Director for LTER, that we were a network for intersite science (Magnuson et al., 2006). Tom's hopes and aspirations for the network (Callahan, 1984) are delineated in his charge at this first meeting: "The LTER network of research projects...and the Foundation are entering into an experiment. The results of this experiment can promote an advance in ecosystem science which will cause the field to change from a largely descriptive discipline to a predictive science." At a network coordinating committee meeting in 1986, John Brooks observed that the opportunities for really new science lay in LTER network science, not just in individual site science (Magnuson et al., 2006). His comments, using the "carrot and the stick" approach, were a challenge to us to do network science. These aspirations and challenges continued and were recognized by the 10- and 20-year reviews of the program. Challenges, both administrative and scientific, were not easily addressed. But we began the process and NSF provided funds to stimulate the effort even in the 1980s.

At that first network meeting in 1980 we exchanged addresses and phone numbers (email did not exist). We set up a few network study groups, such as information management and analytical chemistry. The computing centers at our campuses had less capacity and speed than the laptops we carry around today. Some sites had no long-term data. We wrote a proposal to organize and run the network, and our first attempt at network science was to compare leaf area indices among the sites. A working group examined the issue at a coordinating committee meeting and concluded that it made no sense, so we dropped the idea. We have certainly come a long way since those humble beginnings.

Further efforts in the 1980s were more successful at intersite comparisons, for example, the inter-annual and spatial variability among 12 LTER sites (Riera et al., 2006). For sites as disparate as deserts, lakes, and forests, spatial variability always exceeded inter-annual variability and biological properties were most variable, while chemical and physical properties were progressively less variable. These were system characteristics that extended across the entire LTER network of sites. By the 1990s we were conducting comparative studies such as tree decomposition and other long-term experiments. Currently, a synthetic analysis of trends and dynamics across the sites is in progress.

We are in a decade of synthesis; through the planning grant process, we are developing the blueprint and structure to carry out interdisciplinary, network level science. Challenges for the network and for the sites are, perhaps, the same: how to embrace the new while maintaining the old, balance program growth with manageability, maintain the continuity and integrity of long-term research, and synthesize even as we make system specific advances to science (see Magnuson et al., 2006).

The challenges that were identified early in the LTER program may well be addressed in the decades ahead with long-term data, sophisticated data information systems, conditioned human resources, and the potential for significant funding of intersite science. We are in an exciting time to look back and to look ahead.

John J. Magnuson is the Interim Chair of the LTER Coordinating Committee


Callahan, J. T. 1984. Long-term ecological research. BioScience 34:363-367.

Magnuson, J. J., B. J. Benson, T. K. Kratz, D. E. Armstrong, C. J. Bowser, A. C. C. Colby, T. W. Meinke, P. K. Montz, and K. E. Webster. 2006. Origin, operation, evolution and challenges. Pages 280-322 in Magnuson, J. J., T. K. Kratz, and B. J. Benson, eds. Long-Term Dynamics of Lakes in the Landscape: Long-Term Ecological Research on North Temperate Lakes. Oxford University Press.

Riera, J. L., T. K. Kratz, and J. J. Magnuson. 2006. Generalization from intersite research. Pages 107-120 in Magnuson, J. J., T. K. Kratz, and B. J. Benson, eds. Long-Term Dynamics of Lakes in the Landscape: Long-Term Ecological Research on North Temperate Lakes. Oxford University Press.