Fact Sheets

Smithsonian Environmental Research Center

March 1, 2016

The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center is the leading national research center for understanding environmental issues in the coastal zone. The world’s coastal zones are home to more than 70 percent of the global population and subject to intense activity. SERC ecologists conduct interdisciplinary studies at its headquarters on Chesapeake Bay and in coasts around the world, from the tropics of Central America to the seas of the South Pole.

Scientific Research

SERC research focuses on six main issues: global change, invasive species, biodiversity, food webs, land use, and nutrient and toxic chemical pollution. Highlights include:

  • Aquatic invasions. SERC is the national center for analyzing invasive species patterns in marine and estuarine ecosystems. The Marine Invasions Laboratory measures species invasion through field surveys of all U.S. coastal states and many international ports. It also includes the National Ballast Information Clearinghouse, a database in which commercial ships operating in U.S. waters report how they manage their ballast water—a major method by which ships can inadvertently transport invasive species.
  • The Global Change Research Wetland is an experimental marsh dedicated to forecasting the fate of tidal wetlands under accelerated sea-level rise. Begun as a single study in 1987, the site now supports several unique long-term experiments and datasets on sea-level rise, nitrogen pollution, invasive species, soil elevation change and carbon dynamics, including the world’s longest-running field experiment on ecosystem responses to elevated CO2.
  • Chesapeake Bay. SERC research focuses on human impacts on Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in the United States. Long-term records, some stretching back 30 years or more, track plankton blooms, food web dynamics, blue crab ecology, fish populations, host–parasite interactions, wetland functions, seagrass and other indicators of Bay health. All these variables depend on human land use and discharges from the watershed.
  • UV Radiation. SERC has the world’s longest data record of spectral ultraviolet radiation from the sun affecting Earth.
  • Land use and its consequences. Research at SERC on how land use impacts water quality—including agriculture and coastal development—has revealed the vital role of streamside forests in preventing nutrient runoff into estuaries. SERC also has the longest record of acid rain for the mid-Atlantic region and has shown a link between precipitation and watershed discharges.
  • Biodiversity. SERC has built a 35-year database on species composition and populations dynamics of plants and animals in the Chesapeake Bay region. In 2013 its scientists also planted BiodiversiTree, an experimental forest designed to explore the pros and cons of plant diversity for 100 years.
  • ForestGEO. SERC leads and manages the temperate zone of ForestGEO, a global network that tracks how more than 60 forests on six continents are responding to climate change.
  • Mangroves. SERC organizes and coordinates one of the world’s largest research programs analyzing mangrove forests, vital ecosystems at the land margin of tropical oceans.

Publications and Conference Participation

SERC scientists have published more than 2,400 scientific papers, journal articles and books about ecological dynamics and human interactions with the environment.

Education and Public Programs

To prepare the next generation of environmental scientists, SERC provides educational opportunities for students from kindergarten through the postdoctoral level. SERC has trained more than 1,100 undergraduate interns and approximately 400 postdoctoral, doctoral and graduate student fellows from more than 150 colleges and universities. On average, 45 interns and 20 fellows participate in SERC’s professional training program annually.

A variety of hands-on science experiences and environmental field trips are available for school groups, giving students a chance to test water quality, explore oyster bars and seine for fish and crabs in the river. For students outside Maryland and Washington, D.C., SERC’s distance learning programs include videoconferencing facilities that enable more than 100 classrooms across the country to participate in SERC’s educational programming every year. Teacher workshops offer scientific training, continuing education and environmental curricula.

SERC’s education department also offers programs for the general public, including an evening lecture series, guided canoe expeditions through the estuary and an annual open house. For drop-in visitors, the SERC campus is open for hiking, biking and kayaking six days per week.


Established in 1965, SERC’s campus sits in Edgewater, Md., roughly 26 miles from Washington, D.C. The site encompasses 2,650 acres of land and 12 miles of protected shoreline along the Rhode and West Rivers, two major tributaries of Chesapeake Bay. The landscape serves as a natural laboratory for long-term ecological research on the interactions of land, water and air in the coastal zone.

SERC scientists base their research at its headquarters in Maryland, but extend their studies around the world, using Chesapeake Bay as a model for ecological processes and human impacts in other areas. Comparative studies stretch across the globe, from the Indian River Lagoon in Florida, the Meso-American barrier reef off Belize and the tropical ecosystems of the Panamanian isthmus, to Prince William Sound in Alaska, Japan and the Southern Ocean.

Budget and Staff

The center’s current annual budget is approximately $12 million (federal and trust). The staff of roughly 100 full-time employees has expertise in terrestrial and marine ecology, zoology, physiology, biology and microbiology. Maintenance and security include 44 additional staff. The center’s environmental education staff interprets and communicates research findings to schoolchildren and to the public through on-site educational programs, videoconferences and the website. A vast network of collaborators within the United States and worldwide uses SERC’s research facilities.

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Kristen Minogue         
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