Alan R. Townsend

Alan R. Townsend

Director of INSTAAR

  • Professor, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology



  • PhD: Stanford University, 1994
  • BS: Amherst College, 1988

Contact Information


Biogeochemistry and ecosystem ecology.

Research Interests

Carbon and nitrogen dynamics at regional to global scales; phosphorus controls over C and N in moist tropical systems; nutrient controls over soil carbon storage; human health effects of a changing N cycle.


Alan Townsend is director of INSTAAR. He spent seventeen years on the faculty at CU Boulder before becoming dean of the Duke University Nicholas School of the Environment in 2014. He returned to CU Boulder early in 2017 as the associate vice chancellor for research, INSTAAR Fellow, and professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. Prior to his time at Duke, Townsend served as director of the Division of Environmental Biology at the National Science Foundation and the lead of CU Boulder’s efforts to secure the U.S. hub of Future Earth, now located in CU Boulder’s Sustainability, Energy and Environment Community (SEEC). Before that, he held various roles at CU Boulder, including director of the Environmental Studies program, professor and assistant professor in the department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and Fellow and associate director at INSTAAR. He also co-directed the national Aldo Leopold Leadership Program. Townsend continues to have a faculty appointment in EBIO.

Townsend is an ecosystem ecologist who studies how ecosystems work, how they are changing, and what those changes might mean for society. A particular focus has been nutrient cycling and biogeochemistry in tropical forests.


  • Google Science Communication Fellow, Google, 2011
  • Aldo Leopold Leadership Fellow, Stanford University, Woods Institute for the Environment, 2001




Nasto, M. K.,Osborne, B. B., Lekberg, Y., Asner, G. P.,Balzotti, C. S., Porder, S.,Taylor, P. G.,Alan R. Townsend,Cory Cleveland{/exp:playa:children, 2017: Nutrient acquisition, soil phosphorus partitioning and competition among trees in a lowland tropical rain forest. New Phytologist, 214(4): 1506-1517. DOI: 10.1111/nph.14494

Nemergut, D. R.,{playaagVV7y9Z:title},Ferrenberg, S.,Bilinski, T.,Melbourne, B., Jiang, L., Violle, C., Darcy, J. L., Prest, T., Schmidt, S. K.,Alan R. Townsend{/exp:playa:children, 2016: Decreases in average bacterial community rRNA operon copy number during succession. ISME Journal, 10(5): 1147-1156. DOI: 10.1038/ismej.2015.191

Cole, R. J.,Holl, K. D.,Zahawi, R. A.,Wickey, P.,{playacdqtVJVY:title}{/exp:playa:children, 2016: Leaf litter arthropod responses to tropical forest restoration. Ecology and Evolution, 6(15): 5158-5168. DOI: 10.1002/ece3.2220

{playaywX7gW13:title},Taylor, P.,Chadwick, K. D.,Dahlin, K.,Doughty, C. E.,Malhi, Y.,Smith, W. K.,Sullivan, B. W.,Will Wieder,Alan R. Townsend{/exp:playa:children, 2015: A comparison of plot-based satellite and Earth system model estimates of tropical forest net primary production. Global Biogeochemical Cycles, 29(5): 626-644. DOI: 10.1002/2014GB005022

Sullivan, B. W.,Smith, W. K.,{playaA7Sly9XS:title},Nasto, M. K.,Reed, S. C.,Chazdon, R. L.,Cory Cleveland{/exp:playa:children, 2014: Spatially robust estimates of biological nitrogen (N) fixation imply substantial human alteration of the tropical N cycle. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(22): 8101-8106. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1320646111

All publications by Alan R. Townsend >



Past Courses

  • ENVS 5002: Environmental Science
  • EBIO 5460-002: Current Topics in Biogeochemistry
  • EBIO 4800-004: Global Change and Human Welfare