Many critical environmental problems cannot be answered by studying individual populations or ecosystems. Forest and wetlands mingle with agricultural and urban lands in complex patterns, and the pieces of this mosaic are linked by exchanges of organisms, materials and energy. People increasingly control both the spatial distributions of ecosystems and the exchanges among them.
Landscape ecology is a developing science that integrates patterns, exchanges, and human impacts to understand and manage broad regions. A landscape perspective is needed to understand the flow of plant nutrients through watersheds and to solve the problems of nutrient overload plaguing estuaries and freshwaters around the world. By tracing nutrients through the Rhode River watershed and into the estuary, SERC scientists have produced one of the world's most complete analyses of flows through linked ecosystems m a complex landscape. SERC's analysis shows that nutrient discharges are strongly influenced by the spatial pattern of landscapes. Wetlands and streamside forests can absorb nutrients washed from uphill croplands and block pollutants from reaching streams. Building on the research at the Rhode River watershed, SERC is studying nutrient flow through larger watersheds, including the Patuxent River watershed and the entire 64.000 square-mile (166,000 km2) watershed of Chesapeake Bay.