• Environmental scientist John Field uses ecosystem models to analyze sustainable methods for growing crops such as switchgrass. Credit: Carlos Jones/ORNL, U.S. Dept. of Energy


For Oak Ridge National Laboratory environmental scientist and lover of the outdoors John Field, work in ecosystem modeling is a profession with tangible impacts.

He uses ecosystem models to analyze sustainable methods for growing crops, including bioenergy feedstocks that can be converted into eco-friendly biofuels and bioproducts such as plastics or soil amendments. Field’s work targets climate change by analyzing both biofuel production and best practices for carbon storage in soil, such as growing bioenergy plants on marginal lands that cannot support food crops.

“These models are all about trying to understand how carbon and nitrogen and water move through ecosystems, and those could be natural ecosystems like grasslands and forests, and they could be also agricultural ecosystems like farms and ranches,” Field said.

Because one-fourth to one-third of greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to the agricultural sector, Field sees an emerging priority in using ecosystem models to identify opportunities for reducing agricultural emissions or storing more carbon in soils. He is enthusiastic about the possibilities but notes that developing solutions will take a collaborative effort that leverages expertise and capabilities across the national labs, federal agencies, academia and industry.

“The agricultural system is the biggest land footprint. It’s the biggest water footprint,” Field said. “It’s one of the biggest, if not the biggest, footprint in terms of water pollution. It’s this really challenging interdisciplinary space that brings very diverse groups of people together.