Knute Nadelhoffer, 26, working for the Youth Conservation Corp, on a hike at the Nicolet National Forest, Wisconsin. Image credit: Barbara Billings

Knute Nadelhoffer, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, who has a far-reaching legacy in the realm of ecosystem ecology, retired from active faculty status December 31, 2020. He retired as director of the University of Michigan Biological Station August 31, 2020.

Nadelhoffer joined the U-M faculty as a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and as director of the U-M Biological Station (UMBS) in 2003 after an 18-year career as a research scientist at the Ecosystems Center of the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass. His work at U-M was abundantly fruitful and accomplished. He is internationally recognized for his influential work in ecosystem ecology, terrestrial biogeochemistry, and global change biology. His research is focused on ecological and biogeochemical processes that determine ecosystem structure and functioning at local, regional and global levels. He has conducted field studies in temperate forests across North America and Europe and in tundra ecosystems in northern Alaska to investigate how ecosystems in these regions respond to climate change, air pollution and physical disturbances, and how they feed back to affect global carbon cycling and the climate system. 

Nadelhoffer was elected Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2019 for his “outstanding contributions to understanding plant-soil interactions, including predictions of ecosystem responses to human-induced change.” He was elected Fellow of the Ecological Society of America in 2020 for “... outstanding scholarly contributions to terrestrial biogeochemistry and to understanding the impacts of global environmental change and human activities on forest ecosystems, as well as to the applications of ecology to management and policy.”

He is a world authority on the cycling of nitrogen in ecological systems, the consequences of human activity for nitrogen pollution, and the interactions between nitrogen and carbon cycles within ecosystems and at regional and global scales. He has published over 160 peer-reviewed research papers, book chapters, data sets and agency reports. Nadelhoffer has met with individual U.S. Senators, Congressional Representatives and their staff members numerous times in Washington, D.C., to advocate for science-informed public policy. He testified to the U.S. Congress regarding the effects of climate change on the Great Lakes region. He served as an Expert Reviewer for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Assessment and Special Reports and as a co-author on several reports and planning documents for the U.S. Global Change Research Program. Nadelhoffer's research has been covered in the popular media in articles, interviews, videos and podcasts, including by Michigan Public Radio, Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America, ESA podcast, The Big Ten Network, PBS Newshour, Detroit Free Press, WVON radio (Chicago) “Greenpreneur Show,” among others.

Sen. Gary Peters and Professor Knute Nadelhoffer. Image credit: U-M Government Relations Office

As director of the UMBS, he transformed the research, education and outreach of the station, greatly expanding the diversity of courses offered and the diversity of students who participate in their courses. Beyond traditional courses in biology, he championed classes in environmental writing, policy, law and anthropology. 

He established strong and meaningful partnerships between UMBS and northern Michigan Anishinaabe tribes, including the Burt Lake Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians, the Sault Saint Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, the Bay Mills Indian Community, and the Grand Traverse Bay Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. Nadelhoffer rallied EEB faculty and students for participation in the annual Burt Lake Band Walk of Remembrance, commemorating the tragic village burnout of 1900 in which the band’s ancestral village near Burt Lake was burned after an illegal land grab.

Nadelhoffer wrote a successful grant application as part of the U-M Third Century Initiative. With that seed money, he and UMBS staff established the Transforming Learning Program, bringing a diversity of nontraditional courses – and students – to the station. As a primary investigator in the Third Century Initiative and as a co-principal investigator of the U-M Institute for Global Change Biology, Nadelhoffer’s contributions continue to make important impacts within and beyond the university and they bring great credit to U-M, according to the University Regent’s Retirement Memoir. He initiated and led eight UMBS Winter Research Meetings, now an annual event uniting faculty and researchers in advance of the spring/summer field season. He hosted two visiting U.S. senators, two state senators, and a state representative at the UMBS.

Knute Nadelhoffer and then-EEB graduate student, Buck Castillo. Image credit: Barbara Billings

Nadelhoffer was a popular teacher of General Ecology (EEB 381) and Forest Ecology and Biogeochemistry (EEB 405) at UMBS, Population, Community & Ecosystem Ecology (EEB 401), Global Change: The Science of Sustainability (ENVIRON 110), and the EEB Capstone Seminar (EEB 410). He advised nine EEB graduate students and served on the committees of 11 other U-M students as well as 15 from other institutions. He also advised six postdocs over his career, three at U-M, three at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass.

“As I've never before retired, my plans for 2021 and beyond are ambitious, but subject to change,” said Nadelhoffer. “I will remain active in science. For one, I'll be pulling together and interpreting some large data sets from long-term, multi-site (including the UMBS) collaborative studies on forest soil organic matter formation and feedbacks of soil carbon to the atmosphere and global climate system. I'm looking forward to having more time to write papers on this topic (and others) that have been in the planning stage for years. 

“I'll also be working with environmental advocacy groups, particularly the Environmental Law and Policy Center, where I served as the founding chair of that organization’s Science Advisory Council from 2006 to 2010 and as a board member since 2010, to promote science-based environmental policies aimed at sustaining a livable planet by taking actions to address challenges that climate crisis and biodiversity loss impose on all of us. I've been engaged in this work throughout my time at U-M and will continue and expand these efforts into the future.”

Reflecting on career highlights, Nadelhoffer said, “As a first-generation college student, I have always deeply appreciated that I was able to think deeply about and pursue answers to questions about the natural world during my career. And of course, I value the people I've gotten to know – students, collaborators, friends and even competitors – and all that I've learned from them.

Knute Nadelhoffer working on the director’s cabin deck at the U-M Biological Station.

When asked for words of wisdom for up and coming science students or early career scientists, he said, “Honestly, I'm not sure. I consider myself extremely fortunate that following my interests and being curiosity-driven led to a career that I never could have imagined as a younger person. My life, and anyone else's, could go in almost any direction pending things that are beyond our control.” But then, “OK, I'll try ... look for good mentors and opportunities. Be bold. Ask novel questions. Try new things. Pursue what interests you. Take risks.

“I'll miss working with students and faculty collaborators (from U-M and elsewhere) to identify important research questions and design research projects to answer them. I have plenty of not-yet-analyzed data to work with going forward, so I don't anticipate collecting more. I'll miss that. I'll also miss working with UMBS and EEB staff ... genuinely wonderful people who are dedicated to improving our missions and work. In fact, I'm already missing that, having retired as UMBS director in August and working remotely since last March.” He said that these have been important reminders of how much he values his closest colleagues.

And finally, “As work-life balance should be easier to negotiate, I'll be spending more valued time with my wife, Barbara, our adult daughters, Laurel and Julia, extended family, and, of course, friends. Travel is on our agenda, as is more music and art.” 

Knute Nadelhoffer hosting a tour of the Antarctic Peninsula for the UM Alumni Association in 2008.

Many of his associates shared their appreciation for their colleague, mentor and friend.

EEB Professor Diarmaid Ó Foighil said, “Thank you for all your contributions to the department over the past 17 years. We’ve been very lucky to have you as the director of the UMBS as a member of our department and it’s great to see that linkage continue into the future.

“You may not recall this but before your arrival on campus, there were serious concerns about the viability of the UMBS and its future at multiple different levels. To your great credit, hard work, vision and drive, you’ve changed that conversation completely. Now there’s universal appreciation of UMBS as one of our crown jewels in the college as a whole and you personally are responsible for that.

“Despite your heavy commitment to UMBS, and your fractional appointment in EEB, you’ve punched above your weight within the department as a full member of our faculty as an instructor and as a mentor.

“I’d like to personally thank you, for providing the highlight, I think, of my stay at U-M as a faculty member. Two years ago, you arranged at the EEB retreat at UMBS to participate in the Burt Lake Band’s annual Walk of Remembrance. It was a profoundly moving experience, very educational, very poignant, very eye-opening, I think that feeling is widely shared by everyone who was lucky enough to participate.”

EEB Professor Jake Allgeier said, “I wanted to offer you a tremendous congratulations on an amazing career. You’ve been an inspiration to many ecologists and you’ve laid some foundational work for ecosystem ecology as an entire discipline, so congratulations on that, that’s no small feat.

“We will definitely miss you in the department, you’re a real pleasure to have around, your laugh and your presence and your intellectual input.”

“I want to thank you for all the energy you brought to the BioStation and to the department,” said EEB Professor and Chair Trisha Wittkopp. “I’ve appreciated seeing the impacts on the community. I enjoyed visiting the BioStation for various departmental retreats, your energy about the station and all that was happening there was really infectious.”

“Congratulations for a wonderful career and the great stewardship of the Biological Station,” said EEB Professor Tim James. “It’s always been such a wonderful place to visit, in part because of the spirit that you brought to it and I always felt very welcome coming there.”

“I first met Knute when I was a postdoc at the Ecosystem Center in Woods Hole and Knute was a staff scientist,” recalled EEB Professor George Kling. “I went up to the Arctic with him and thank him for teaching me everything I know about roots.

“Knute was just great fun in the field, more than that, he really had a great sense of how to do ecosystem science. I think that made a great impression on me early on. I also want to thank Knute for being such a great friend and colleague over all these years, I’m really going to miss him in his retirement.”

EEB Professor Catherine Badgley said, “Your leadership at the Biological Station has been memorable. You’ve enabled it to move forward in so many positive ways. I especially appreciate the ways that you have reached out to the Native Americans in the area (Little Traverse Band) and hope that those interactions continue in a really positive way.”

“Thank you Knute for being such a great mentor—for not only supporting our research, but also for creating such a great community at the Biological Station,” said EEB graduate student alumnus, Susan Cheng, who is now a data analytics and course assessment consultant, U-M Center for Research on Learning and Teaching. “Many of us wouldn’t have met each other and developed the long lasting friendships and collaborations we have without you.”

EEB graduate student alumnus, Abby Potts, who is working on a National Forest Foundation Stewardship, said “You’ve influenced so many lives through the BioStation and in the EEB department at Michigan. I loved seeing you at the BioStation and running into you in the halls at BSB (Biological Sciences Building). Thanks for having such a positive influence on the graduate students, undergraduates, research technicians and everybody, it’s really been appreciated.”

Leslie Decker, a graduate student alumnus, who is now a postdoctoral research fellow in biology at Stanford University, said, “Thank you so much for always making the BioStation feel like home, always being a smiling face on your bicycle or walking to the dining hall or wherever. Thank you for being on my committee and being so supportive. I knew I could always count on you.”

Clearly, Nadelhoffer’s strong and affable presence will be missed by many. However, he’s made his mark on countless students and colleagues and within the field of ecosystem ecology, where his influence will continue to be felt in a multitude of positive ways.

compiled by Gail Kuhnlein

Read more about Nadelhoffer in news linked from his faculty emeritus webpage>>

and in a 2014 EEB Natural Selections faculty feature>>

Watching sunset over Douglas Lake. Image credit: Barbara Billings