January 24, 1949 • Honolulu, Hawaii
When he began his studies as a young man, Peter Vitousek had no plans to become one of the world's leading ecologists. The Hawaii native started out as a political science major, switching to ecology when he came across a book about the damage done to certain regions when new species of plants and animals are introduced and take over. After completing his education and becoming a university professor and research scientist, Vitousek eventually ended up in his home state, studying vegetation and wildlife in the hopes of preserving ecosystems—the interworkings of organisms and their surrounding environment—in Hawaii and around the world. One of the issues Vitousek has focused on involves the problem of too much nitrogen in the environment. Nitrogen is an element that occurs naturally, but it also enters soil and water through its use in fertilizers and as a by-product of the burning of fuels such as gasoline. An excess of nitrogen upsets the biological balance of the entire planet. Chosen by Time magazine in 2001 as one of the United States's best scientists, Vitousek has used his ground-breaking research in Hawaii to demonstrate the interconnectedness of ecosystems all over the world.
Vitousek was born in 1949 in Honolulu, which is on Oahu, one of several islands that constitute the state of Hawaii. As a child, he was not especially interested in ecology or other environmental sciences, but he did enjoy spending time outdoors, exploring the island. He told Environment Hawaii, "[I] spent a lot of time hiking in the Ko'olau as a kid, not knowing what I was looking at very much, but liking being outside a lot." His family spent part of each year in Kona, a coastal region on the island of Hawaii. Vitousek's father had grown up in that area, and his grandmother still lived there. During those trips to Kona, Vitousek spent time with some of his father's childhood friends, many of whom were ranchers and knew the land intimately. He learned a great deal about Hawaii's native vegetation and cultivated a love for his state's natural beauty.
"A tremendously important challenge is making people aware of just how extraordinary a place [Hawaii] is ... not just for people in Hawaii appreciating what we have, but as an opportunity for people in the rest of the world to come and see and appreciate."
When it came time to choosing a major in college, Vitousek chose a field that had little to do with his interest in exploring the outdoors. He began studying political science at Amherst College in western Massachusetts. He took an English course on the literature of science, a class that would alter his life's course. The class was assigned a book written by a British ecologist, Charles Elton, that detailed the impact of biological invasions. Sometimes, when a species of plant or wildlife is introduced to an area where that species does not ordinarily grow or live, it can take over, or invade, the area's ecosystem, having a tremendous and often damaging effect. The descriptions in Elton's book about the biological invasions in Hawaii ignited a spark in Vitousek. He recalled to Environment Hawaii: "A lot of things just came together for me then. I had that experience, seeing it and then reading about it and realizing that it fit somewhere in the context of conservation and of biology. I got really excited about doing something...."
Vitousek began taking biology classes at Amherst. While he graduated in 1971 with a degree in political science, that subject had taken a back seat to other kinds of science in terms of his passion. After leaving Amherst, he enrolled in a postgraduate program at Dartmouth College, in Hanover, New Hampshire, earning his PhD in biological sciences there in 1975. Vitousek began his career teaching and conducting research at Indiana University and at the University of North Carolina. In 1984 he became a professor at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. That university's location brought him closer to home, with Hawaii being just a few hours by plane from California. During the first few years he worked at Stanford, Vitousek spent more and more time conducting research in Hawaii. By the early 1990s, Vitousek was working almost exclusively in Hawaii, fulfilling his long-time goal of returning home. In 1990 he won a grant, known as a fellowship, from the Pew Fellows Program in Marine Conservation. This grant enabled him to study the effects of the introduction of non-native grasses on Hawaii's local ecology. As part of his fellowship, he also helped to educate the public about environmental changes taking place around the world.
Based at the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Vitousek and his colleagues examine, as he told Environment Hawaii, "how whole ecosystems work, how the relationship between plants and soils works on large scales of space and time." Hawaii is an ideal testing ground for ecologists because it is so geographically isolated. Few species of plants occur naturally in Hawaii, and these few have had to adapt to the variety of climates and environments found there. Rather than trying to bring back to vitality areas that have been damaged, Vitousek's approach to protecting Hawaii's ecosystems consists of concentrating on the relatively unspoiled areas, working to keep these protected areas in the best shape possible. Such areas have been protected by organizations like the Nature Conservancy, which devotes itself to the preservation of plants and wildlife, as well as by national and state park systems. These areas have been saved from real estate development and have been monitored carefully to keep invasive species out and allow native species to thrive. "Those are places that are like no other places on earth," Vitousek told Environment Hawaii. "They are unique." Vitousek considers invasive species to be the greatest threat to ecosystems in Hawaii and elsewhere. Time magazine pointed out that such "biological invasions" have been responsible for tremendous ecological damage in Hawaii: "All of Hawaii's twenty species of flightless birds have vanished, and half the flying ones as well. One-sixth of the native plants are gone, and 30 percent of remaining ones are threatened."
One significant aspect of Vitousek's research has involved the study of how ecosystems thousands of miles apart can interact with and affect each other. He and his colleagues examined the chemical makeup of soil and rock at volcanic sites, which are abundant in Hawaii. Some of the sites were relatively young—just three hundred years old—and there, the plants derived their nutrients from the hardened lava. At the older sites, some as ancient as 4.1 million years, the scientists discovered that plants had been fed by minerals from another place entirely. The nutrients at these sites had arrived via ocean spray and dust, some of which had originated thousands of miles distant, in central Asia. Vitousek concluded, as he told Time, that "no ecosystem is entirely isolated."
Vitousek feels that one way to ensure that Hawaii's unspoiled areas are protected in the future is to educate people all over the world about what a special place Hawaii is. He told Environment Hawaii, "in terms of appreciating how the world works, evolutionarily, ecologically, culturally—there's nothing like Hawaii. And people who come here should see more of that, appreciate more of that, enjoy it more." Vitousek recognizes that many people think only of beautiful beaches and palm trees when they think of Hawaii, but he considers it vitally important to inform potential visitors that Hawaii has far more to offer. He wants to promote Hawaii as an ideal destination for ecotourists, travelers who are passionate about visiting areas of extraordinary natural beauty. Vitousek understands that an increased number of tourists visiting Hawaii's remote, protected ecosystems could take a toll on those areas, but he feels the benefits outweigh the threats. As ever greater numbers of people come to feel as passionately as Vitousek does about preserving the world's natural treasures, the chances that such treasures will survive for generations to come increases tremendously.
In addition to finding ways to protect ecosystems, Vitousek has also focused his research on the issue of excess nitrogen in the environment. Nitrogen makes up 78 percent of Earth's atmosphere, but far more nitrogen than what naturally occurs has been found in water and soil throughout the world in recent decades. Some of the excess nitrogen is introduced through the burning of fossil fuels, which are extracted from the ground and come from the ancient remains of plants and animals. Fossil fuels include coal, natural gas, and crude oil. Crue oil is used to make gasoline and diesel fuel, which are burned by the engines of cars, trucks, and airplanes, among other machines. Another major source of excess nitrogen comes from fertilizers used in the growing of crops. Nitrogen is an essential nutrient for plants, and since the 1950s, farmers have increasingly used fertilizers that contain large quantities of synthetic, or human-made, nitrogen. While Vitousek recognizes that advancements in farming—including improvements made to nitrogen-containing fertilizers—have helped to feed billions of people, he asserts that the use of nitrogen should be carefully monitored to avoid upsetting the delicate balance of nature.
That balance has been disturbed by excess nitrogen. Nitrogen from fertilizers gets washed into rivers and lakes, eventually ending up in oceans and other large bodies of water. The presence of this nitrogen causes the explosive growth of certain types of algae, which are plants or plantlike organisms that grow in water. These algae "blooms" can be vast, and when they die, beginning to decay as they sink, they absorb oxygen in the water. The lack of oxygen then results in widespread suffocation among other marine plants and animals. Scientists have noted with great concern a large algae bloom—the size of the state of New Jersey—in the Gulf of Mexico. This bloom, believed to be the result of excess nitrogen, has been labeled a "dead zone" because of the inability of many species to survive in that area. The Gulf of Mexico dead zone is one of about fifty such areas in coastal waters worldwide. These dead zones have begun to pose a significant threat to marine ecosystems and, in some cases, have devastated a region's fishing industry.
Scientists have also noted a problem concerning nitrogen levels in soil. Some of the nitrogen released into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels returns to the earth as part of acid rain, which is rain, snow, or fog that contains harmful levels of acid resulting from air pollution. When it becomes part of the soil, this type of nitrogen attracts important nutrients like potassium, magnesium, and calcium, taking those nutrients away from plants that need them. Excess nitrogen in the soil may lead to explosive growth among some plant species, but it can suffocate others.
Vitousek has worked to spread the word about the problems of excess nitrogen and the many harmful effects of this imbalance. He also educates people about what can be done to counteract this environmental problem. One way to improve the situation is more moderate use of nitrogen-based fertilizers on farms worldwide. Farmers can measure the amount of nitrogen in the soil and apply only as much fertilizer as absolutely necessary. In addition, farmers can plant more "nitrogen-fixing" plants such as soybeans, alfalfa, and peas, all of which are effective at converting the nitrogen that exists in the air into a usable nutrient, thereby reducing the need for fertilizers. Vitousek and many other environmental scientists also advocate a reduction in the burning of fossil fuels, which can be accomplished by the widespread use of more fuel-efficient cars. Vitousek has devoted his life to studying the inner workings of ecosystems and then applying his knowledge to recommend improvements in the global environment. Vitousek's colleague, Jane Lubchenco, a marine ecologist, told Time what makes the Hawaiian ecologist so unique: "Peter is a real visionary. 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."
"Ecosystems Analyst." Time (August 20, 2001): p. 44.
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Nesmith, Jeff. "Nitrogen Used in Fertilizer Tips Delicate Balance." Palm Beach (FL) Post (November 3, 2002).
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