Trained as an ecologist, Chris has conducted environmental research from tropical rainforests to deserts to alpine tundra in the Americas, Asia, Africa, and Australia. He is a specialist in global-change research. He has developed an evolutionary approach to understanding the spatial organization of plant canopies and the adaptive significance of leaf aging. These studies led to work on the role of nitrogen in regulating plant growth and photosynthsis. They also suggested ways that plant physiological responses could be summarized with a few parameters, providing a basis for predicting many aspects of ecosystem function at very large scales.
Recently, he has emphasized formalizing approaches for summarizing plant responses into models that simulate ecosystem exchanges of carbon, water, and energy at the global scale. These models, which synthesize surface data on climate and soils, satellite data on vegetation type and canopy development, and functional generalizations from physiology and ecology, help test hypotheses and understand the future status of terrestrial ecosystems, especially responses to and influences on global change factors like increased atmospheric carbon dioxide or altered climate.
Field is active in developing the international community of global change researchers, with involvement in organizations like SCOPE, IGBP, and the Global Carbon Project. An author or more than 100 scientific papers, he is a member of the US National Academy of Sciences and a leader in several national and international efforts to provide the scientific foundation for a sustainable future.