Energy Flow

William S. Currie

in Ecology

ISBN: 9780199830060
Published online May 2012 | | DOI:
Energy Flow

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  • Applied Ecology (Environmental Science)
  • Ecology and Conservation
  • Plant Ecology
  • Zoology and Animal Sciences


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Energy flow in ecology encompasses a broad range of empirical and theoretical topics. It is difficult to draw a distinct boundary around the topic because it overlaps with many other areas of ecology, biology, physical sciences, and global change. The scales addressed by the study of energy flows and transformations include the molecular scale, the metabolism and physiology of organisms and microorganisms, the organization of trophic webs and ecosystems, and the surface energy balance of landscapes, regions, and the globe. The flow of energy was a key organizing principle in the growth of ecosystem science in the mid- to late 20th century. Food webs deal with the flow of energy from primary producers to consumers, detritivores, and predators. Ecosystem approaches consider aggregated primary production, respiration by autotrophs and heterotrophs, net ecosystem production, and changes in these quantities over time. Environmental biophysics includes the study of radiation fluxes, the surface energy balance, and the coupling of vegetation processes to the atmosphere. The concept of energy flows suggests energy transfers among elements of a system, while the broader concept of energetics also includes metabolism, controls on production, relationships between energy flows and carbon cycling, and a diverse set of ecological and biophysical phenomena related to energy in organisms and ecosystems. Within these topics there are several distinct areas of research and scholarship, with some areas overlapping a great deal and others overlapping only a little. Many efforts over the last half century have sought to unify wide-ranging aspects of ecological energetics, some with highly theoretical approaches that relate to ecosystem development or degree of organization. Other efforts have sought to link ecological energy flows with industrial energy flows or the provision of human needs in a linked social-ecological framework. In research on ecosystems and trophic webs historically, energy units, such as calories, are used to describe both biological and abiotic energy flows. In current research carbon is typically used as a proxy for energy in biological energy flows, while joules are typically used to describe abiotic flows and transformations of energy, such as those in the surface energy balance.

Article.  11722 words. 

Subjects: Applied Ecology (Environmental Science) ; Ecology and Conservation ; Plant Ecology ; Zoology and Animal Sciences

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