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Ecology: Ecosystems Analyst

3 minute read
Jeffrey Kluger

If you want to find Peter Vitousek in his lab, the first thing you have to do is go to Hawaii. After that, it gets tricky, because Vitousek’s lab isn’t in the state–it is the state. The Stanford University ecologist has devoted his career to studying the earth’s metabolism and life cycles, zeroing in on how the intricate machinery of its forests is altered by people and the introduction of new plants and animals. “Peter is a real visionary,” says marine ecologist Jane Lubchenco of Oregon State University. “It’s unusual to have someone who is simultaneously interested in the big picture and in taking a very detailed look at the processes themselves.”

Vitousek, 52, didn’t plan to spend his life tending to the planet’s health; he began as a political science major. While a student at Amherst, however, he wrote a thesis on land use and stumbled across a book on biological invasions of pristine places. A native of Hawaii, he knew that this problem was especially acute in his home state. All of Hawaii’s 20 species of flightless birds have vanished, and half the flying ones as well. One-sixth of the native plants are gone, and 30% of remaining ones are threatened. “I decided I wanted to be an ecologist, so I jumped into science classes to catch up,” he says. “I always intended to work in Hawaii.”

Now, decades later, the field is trying to catch up with him. Vitousek’s studies of the Hawaiian Islands–the world’s most remote archipelago and a place humans discovered only 1,500 years ago–have yielded some intriguing findings. While the arrival of new species has had the greatest impact on Hawaii’s unique flora and fauna, what amazed Vitousek was how the world reaches out to touch even the most remote spots. In one celebrated study, he and his colleagues analyzed soil and rock chemistry at volcanic sites ranging from 300 years to 4.1 million years old. Plants at the youngest sites drew nutrients straight from weathering lava. Those at older, more depleted sites survived on minerals blown in on sea spray and in dust from central Asia, thousands of miles away. “No ecosystem is entirely isolated,” he says.

Vitousek is currently focusing on the problem of global nitrogen, the element that makes up 80% of the atmosphere. Nitrogen is also found in fossil-fuel exhaust and is a principal ingredient in fertilizer. Spread too much of it around, and it can throw off the planet’s biological balance, triggering explosive growth in some species and suffocating others. “That’s a huge alteration in how the world works,” Vitousek says. “Our capacity to change the earth means we must manage this.” For a man who didn’t even much care for science at first, that’s quite a mission.

–Reported by Andrea Dorfman/New York

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Write to Jeffrey Kluger at jeffrey.kluger@time.com