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William H. Schlesinger (April 30, 1950 – Present) is a biogeochemist and the president of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, a private environmental research organization in Millbrook, NY. He assumed this position after 27 years on the faculty of Duke Universitymarker, where he served as the Dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences and James B. Duke Professor of Biogeochemistry.

Education, career, and honors

Schlesinger began his college education at Dartmouth Collegemarker where he received his A.B. in biology in 1972. He earned his Ph.D. at Cornell Universitymarker in Ecology and Systematics in 1976.Schlesinger’s teaching career began at the University of California, Santa Barbaramarker where he was an assistant professor of biology for four years. Afterwards, he transferred to Duke Universitymarker becoming a full professor and teaching for over 20 years. In 2001, Schlesinger was promoted as the Dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences at Duke University. Schlesinger retired as the dean on June 1, 2007 and became the president of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies where he currently works.

Schlesinger was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciencesmarker in 2003, and was President of the Ecological Society of America from 2003 - 2004. He is also a fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciencesmarker, the American Geophysical Union, and the Soil Science Society of America. He is a member of the Board of Trustees of the Southern Environmental Law Center, The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.

Contributions to biogeochemistry

Schlesigner is the author or coauthor of over 200 scientific papers on subjects of environmental chemistry and global change and the widely-adopted textbook Biogeochemistry: An analysis of global change (Academic Press, 2nd ed. 1997). He was among the first to quantify the amount of carbon held in soils globally, providing subsequent estimates of the role of soils and human impacts on forests and soils in global climate change.

He is a proponent of sound environmental policies and has testified before U.S. House and Senate committees. Environmental issues that he has advocated for include: preserving desert habitats, addressing global climate change, and carbon sequestration. His efforts have influenced tangible legislation such as the Clean Air Act, and California Desert Protection Act. His work has led to a better understanding of human impacts on the chemistry of the Earth’s surface, including an analysis of the sources and fate of industrial sources of nitrogen (e.g., fertilizer) in the natural environment.

Work with desert ecosystems, 1991-2006

Schlesinger served as the co-principal investigator for the Jornada Basin Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) located in the Chihuahuan Desert in southern New Mexicomarker. Research projects mainly focus on inorganic fluxes, including studies of ammonia volatilization from soils, hydrology natural runoff plots and transect soil water content. He has also worked extensively in arid ecosystems and landscapes, studying responses to resource redistribution and global change, which can lead to soil degradation and regional desertification. Schlesinger postulated that the patchy distribution of vegetation in desert regions controls many aspects of soil fertility and the response of deserts to overgrazing and climate change.

Forest-atmosphere carbon transfer and storage, 1996-1999

Schlesinger was the co-principal investigator for the Free Air CO2 Enrichment (FACE) Experiment in the Duke Forest. The object of the study was to investigate the efficacy of carbon sequestration in forest ecosystems (vegetation and soil) in response to elevated atmospheric CO2 concentration, as a means to mitigate the potential for global warming.

During this decade-long experiment, Schlesinger and John Lichter (Bowdoin College) found only small changes in soil carbon content, suggesting that enhanced carbon storage in soils is unlikely to play a major role in slowing the growth of atmospheric CO2 and the magnitude of global climate change. Much larger changes were seen in the growth rate of trees, but even those were unlikely to sequester a significant increment of carbon worldwide as a result of rising CO2 in Earth’s atmosphere.


Schlesinger, W. H., Better Living Through Biogeochemistry, Ecology, 85(9), 2004, pp.2402-2407

Schlesinger, W. H., Biogeochemistry, An Analysis of Global change, Academic Press, 1997, pp. 159-163

Schlesinger, W. H., Lichter, J., 2001. Limited carbon storage in soil and litter of experimental forest plots under increased atmospheric CO2. Nature 411, 466-469.

Schlesinger, W.H. 2006. Global change science. Trends in Ecology and Evolution (TREE) 21: 348-351.Schlesinger, W.H. 2009. On the fate of anthropogenic nitrogen. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 106:203-208

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