Intensively Managed Landscapes


Reducing the environmental impacts of contemporary agriculture while meeting the world’s growing food, fiber and fuel needs is a tremendous challenge. Poor agricultural practices and policies have contributed to widespread land degradation, depletion of soil fertility, loss of biodiversity, and degradation of water quality. Furthermore, the agricultural sector is a major contributor to the greenhouse gas emissions responsible for global warming. These environmental challenges include those caused by expansion—converting natural landscapes to cropland or pastures—and those caused by intensification—increasing the productivity of existing agricultural landscapes through the use of artificial drainage, fertilizers, pesticides, and mechanization. In the coming decades, decision makers will need to better understand and manage trade-offs in our intensively managed landscapes.

Intensively managed landscapes infographic

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Purdue’s Approach

Our goal is to create a global consortium of networked academic, private, and government organizations to advance resilience of the linked food-energy-water (FEW) systems in intensively managed agricultural landscapes. Leveraging cooperative institutional arrangements across the U.S. Midwest, China, India, and Brazil, the effort focuses on studies of rate limitations in biophysical and geochemical processes that underpin the ecosystem services supporting agricultural sustainability and water quality, and the application of management solutions based on these discoveries. In addition, this program has established a clearinghouse of university intellectual property—licensable in our partner countries—that offers technological solutions to FEWS-related problems.  


Intensively Managed Landscapes Critical Zone Observatory (IML-CZO)

PI: Timothy Filley
Funding: National Science Foundation

Critical zone observatories are National Science Foundation-sponsored field-based natural laboratories designed to investigate how components of the critical zone (the top of the vegetation canopy to the lowest limit of circulating groundwater) interact, shape Earth's surface, and support life. The central hypothesis for the IML-CZO is that, through human modification, the critical zone of IMLs has passed a tipping point and has gradually shifted from being a transformer of material flux with high nutrient, water, and sediment storage to being a transporter of material flux with low nutrient, water, and sediment storage. The research team is exploring questions such as: How does the coupled interaction of geologic materials, landscape form, and the soil continuum respond to climate, vegetation, and human activities in the critical zone? What is the dynamic relation between active and stabilized forms of soil organic matter in IMLs and how does that relationship vary? What are the key factors affecting the long-term resilience of the critical zone?

Regional Integrated Watershed Modeling for Water Quality

PI: Bernie Engel
Funding: Purdue

The intensification of row-crop agriculture and livestock production has contributed enormously to economic growth and food security in China. Grasslands and meadows are the backbone of this production allowing for these improved diets with grains, meat and dairy. However, over-exploitation of these ecosystems has caused soil carbon loss and erosion by wind and water. Across China, approximately one-third of all grassland areas have experienced degradation. In Qinghai, it is estimated that approximately 58% have experienced moderate to serious degradation, due in part to livestock overgrazing. Environmental and landscape models like the Soil and Water Assessment Tool (SWAT) and the CENTURY model are being used to evaluate the effects of overgrazing on soil health and water quality and to explore best management practices specific to a variety of localities in Qinghai Province, including the Sanjiang Yuan Area.

Ecosystem Monitoring

PI: Chad Jafvert
Funding: EPA and industry sources

To better regulate emerging contaminants, and to design technically feasible and cost-effective remediation strategies for sites that remain significantly contaminated from past waste-handling practices (i.e., legacy pollutants), the dynamics of contaminant transport, transformation, and ultimate decay in the environment must be measured and then understood through predictive models that capture the major processes effecting the contaminants. The environmental processes studied by Jafvert and his students at mechanistic levels include photochemical transformation and phase transfer of legacy and emerging contaminants. With collaborators at Purdue and elsewhere, the photochemical transformation of brominated flame retardants and carbon-based nanomaterials has been investigated. Recent work has focused on photochemical and dark reactions involving carbon nanotubes and graphene oxide. Phase transfer processes have been investigated at two former manufactured gas plant (MGP) facilities in Indiana, where liquid coal tar is present in the sediments of the adjacent small streams. Characterization of these sites has included extensive monitoring of groundwater pressures, and stream-groundwater exchange (i.e., groundwater seepage). Work on the design of passive samplers to monitor PAHs in sediment pore water has been conducted. Other research in this area has focused on stream flow-weighted contaminant mass sampling strategies, such that mass balances on contaminant loss (e.g., synthetic hormones) from areas covering several hectares can be determined with reasonable accuracy.

Affiliated Faculty

Sylvie Brouder


Brouder’s research focuses on field-to-landscape scale nutrient cycling and losses in agriculture and on evaluation of agroecosystem viability and sustainability, examination of rooting dynamics, the root-soil interface and root/shoot ecophysiology; and multivariate statistical and simulation modeling approaches to analysis of environmental data. Brouder is director of the Water Quality Field Station, a unique facility where 11 different management approaches can be compared to a restored prairie to assess relative environmental impact of cropping systems.

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Bernie Engel

Agricultural and Biological Engineering

Engel’s research focuses on the use of geographic information systems (GIS), expert systems, artificial intelligence and simulation to study and control agricultural nonpoint source pollution of surface and ground water. He has extensive experience with the development and application of watershed hydrologic models to address a range of water quality issues at watershed scales. He has created decision support systems and web-based watershed and water quality decision support systems by integrating GIS and natural resources modeling tools.

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Timothy Filley

Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences and Agronomy

Filley’s research focuses on the fundamental processes controlling the cycling of carbon and nitrogen in soil, litter, and streams within natural and managed ecosystems, and the implications of such biogeochemistry on the fate of emerging pollutants. Using natural abundance and highly enriched stable isotopes and biomarker tools, his group investigates how perturbations to ecosystems (e.g., storm events, woody plant encroachment, invasive species, and intensive management) interact with soil and microbial properties to stabilize or destabilize soil organic matter. A primary goal of his work is to develop a stronger scientific basis for understanding the vulnerability and resilience of soil organic matter to intensive land management.

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Dennis Flanagan

Agricultural And Biological Engineering

Dennis Flanagan is a Professor of Agricultural and Biological Engineering at Purdue University. He is also an Agricultural Engineer with the USDA Agricultural Research Service, at the National Soil Erosion Research Laboratory, located on the Purdue University campus in West Lafayette, Indiana. Dennis received his B.S. degree from The Ohio State University and his M.S. and Ph.D. degrees from Purdue University. His research work deals with soil erosion by water mechanics and prediction. An ongoing laboratory study is investigating the interaction effects of rainfall intensity and flow depth on rill sediment transport and deposition. Recent field experiments with both natural and simulated rainfall are examining the usefulness of organic polymers at controlling soil erosion during the critical period of grass establishment on steep slopes or in concentrated flow regions. In the erosion prediction area, Dr. Flanagan is continuing to work on the Water Erosion Prediction Project (WEPP), with major efforts in graphical interface development and linkage of WEPP with a geographic information system (GIS).

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Jane Frankenberger

Agricultural and Biological Engineering

Frankenberger’s research focuses on quantifying the effectiveness of conservation practices in drained agricultural watersheds, through field studies of innovative drainage practices and simulation modeling at the field and watershed scales. She also leads Extension programs on strategies to reduce nutrient loss from drained lands, watershed management and assessment, and drinking water testing and treatment.

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Chad Jafvert

Civil Engineering and Environmental and Ecological Engineering

Jafvert’s research interests include remediation strategies for contaminated sediments; real time water quality monitoring, drining water treatment in developing countries; and aquatic photochemistry of pollutants. His work on drinking water treatment has taken him to Colombia, Kenya, and Tanzania to construct slow-sand water filters.

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Jeff Volenec


Jeffrey Volenec is a professor in the Department of Agronomy. His research focuses on abiotic stress tolerance and input use efficiencies of crop plants, including water, nutrients and radiation. By understanding mechanisms of/limitations to use of these key inputs, his work aims to optimize agronomic performance by exploiting genotype x environment x management interactions. Understanding these interactions is critical to sustainably intensifying production of food, feed, fuel and fiber in the context of a changing climate and limiting natural resources as the human population approaches 9 billion by 2050. Volenec earned his Ph.D. in crop physiology at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

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Lisa Welp

Dept Earth, Atmospheric, And Planetary Sci

Welp studies the carbon and water trade-offs in the terrestrial biosphere. She uses carbon and oxygen stable isotopes of plant organic matter to investigate plant water use efficiency and how plants respond physiologically to water stress. Her work also aims to identify spatial and seasonal variability in plant source water and atmospheric moisture, and to partition evapotranspiration into soil evaporation and plant transpiration.

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