Global environmental change helped drive the field of ecosystem ecology from descriptive to predictive science. Doing so required synthesis of a broad array of mechanisms into a conceptual framework that would be widely applicable to a variety of environmental changes, ecosystems and process responses. At the same time, need developed for a textbook to communicate the basic principles of ecosystem ecology in a cohesive way to the burgeoning ranks of young ecologists interested in how global changes might influence the fundamental processes driving the earth system. Here we argue that the textbook “Principles of Terrestrial Ecosystem Ecology”, headed by Terry Chapin, helped serve both of these purposes. It went beyond the traditional textbook role of merely summarizing a field; instead, the authors developed and synthesized a variety of insights, forging a cohesive framework for understanding this discipline.
We highlight two key aspects of the book that illustrate its contribution to ecosystem ecology and education and explore their subsequent impacts. First, the book adapted the conceptual framework of Hans Jenny's state factors to include interactive controls – resources, microclimate, disturbance regimes, modulators, and human activities - that respond to both the external state factors and to internal feedbacks from the biota. Second, the book goes to great lengths to ensure synthetic, consistent coverage of mechanisms at different scales. There are no “black boxes”. We illustrate this coverage using carbon cycling from physiological to ecosystem to global scales. This mechanistic consistency has helped students and the global change community to refine and systematize the lexicon of ecosystem carbon balance. We also highlight the book’s use of conceptual diagrams that illustrate the interactions among controls across scales, from large scale and indirect state factors to small scale and immediate proximal controls. These diagrams aid students in understanding the breadth of tools used to understand ecological processes, from plot to global scales. Together, these strategies have provided a clear, organized framework for comparison across ecosystem types, enabling students to understand why ecosystems may respond either similarly or differently to global environmental change.