Monthly Newsletter – April 2015

Monthly Newsletter of WHRC

Dr. Philip DuffyPermafrost: Exceeding 2 degrees Celsius

Dr. Philip Duffy, President & Executive Director

Permafrost is sometimes described as “permanently frozen soil.” If only it were! Unfortunately, climate change is causing arctic permafrost to thaw; you may have seen pictures of slumping buildings and trees where this has happened. But the biggest danger from thawing permafrost is the release of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

Arctic permafrost, which covers 24% of northern hemisphere land area, is believed to contain much more carbon than the atmosphere, and more than tropical forests. For this reason, release of carbon from thawing permafrost constitutes a major climate threat.

If thawing permafrost adds large amounts of carbon dioxide or methane to the atmosphere, it would greatly accelerate warming, which would lead to more thawing, etc. This sort of thing has happened before. Fifty-six million years ago, a massive release of greenhouse gases raised the global temperature by at least 9°F in a warming episode that lasted 200,000 years.

2015April_2degreesWe don’t want that to happen again, so understanding under what conditions it would happen is a critically important policy question.

A new paper co-authored by WHRC Assistant Scientist Susan Natali summarizes what is known about the fate of carbon stored in arctic permafrost. Strangely, the findings in this paper have been described in relatively reassuring terms:

“Current evidence suggests a gradual and prolonged release of greenhouse gas emissions.”

“The permafrost carbon is not going to explode into the atmosphere catastrophically within just a few years.”

My reading of the paper is much less optimistic. In order to keep global warming to less than 2°C (a widely cited goal), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that we mustn’t emit more than an additional 300 or so billion tonnes of carbon. That means 300 billion tonnes from all sources, all nations, and over all time between now and the end of the universe. That sounds like a lot, but we’ve already emitted over 500 billion tonnes.

The new permafrost paper estimates that between now and 2100 nearly half of humanity’s 300+ billion tonne “allowance” will be emitted by thawing permafrost alone. That means that the amount we can emit from fossil fuel use and land use change is only about half of what it otherwise would be, making it much more difficult to keep climate change under control. And that assumes that all of the carbon released from permafrost will be in the form of carbon dioxide; if a significant amount comes out as methane, which we’re pretty sure it will, the situation is even worse.

The Center is at the heart of addressing this high-stakes challenge, both through the science we’re doing and through our engagement in arctic-related policy processes. We appreciate your interest and support of this critically important work.

2015April_EarthDayJoint Earth Day Celebration in honor of the 30th anniversary of Woods Hole Research Center and The 300 Committee

This year marks the 30th anniversary of two Falmouth environmental groups, the Woods Hole Research Center (WHRC) and The 300 Committee (T3C). On April 22, WHRC and T3C will jointly host an Earth Day celebration to recognize this collective milestone. The event begins at 4:00 p.m. with an interpretive walk from WHRC to Peterson Farm and back to WHRC for a presentation on land use and preservation on Cape Cod. A reception will follow.

WHRC and T3C share a common concern for the health of the environment but work at different scales. As a scientific institution, WHRC works at the intersection of land use and climate change to identify strategies for climate smart land management. The 300 Committee is a private land trust dedicated to protecting and preserving open space in Falmouth, Massachusetts.

WHRC scientist emeritus and T3C Board Member Thomas Stone will lead the walk to Peterson Farm, an 88-acre farm dating from 1679 that was purchased by Falmouth in 1998 with T3C assistance. In discussing their common interests, Stone and other WHRC scientists will discuss land use and related benefits such as removing atmospheric C02, which natural lands and protected open space provide to all for free.

After returning to WHRC, Stone will talk in more detail about how Cape Cod’s land use history of European colonization, deforestation, agricultural intensification, eventual reforestation and re-wilding could serve as a recipe for mitigating the effects of climate change in other parts of the world as we enter a challenging future. An informal reception will follow the presentation.

The public is invited to attend this event, which begins at 4:00 p.m. at the Woods Hole Research Center, 149 Woods Hole Road. Space is limited and reservations are required. Contact Paula Beckerle at 508-444-1521 or for details.

The 300 Committee is a private, non-profit land trust dedicated to protecting and preserving open space for the citizens of Falmouth, Massachusetts. Founded in 1985 by a small group of volunteers to commemorate the Town of Falmouth’s 300th anniversary, The 300 Committee has helped permanently protect more than 2,300 acres throughout our community for conservation, recreation and water protection.

Prajjwal Panday

Prajjwal Panday joined WHRC’s Brazil team in 2013 after receiving his Ph.D. from the Graduate School of Geography at Clark University. His most recent work is focused on examining the impacts of extreme hydrological events on Amazon floodplain hydrology and the productivity of floodplain forests and fisheries.

Dr. Panday grew up a world away from the Amazon in Kathmandu, Nepal, where he witnessed dramatic urban expansion pollute the air and water of his city. He knew that he wanted to do something about it and began studying urban river pollution in Kathmandu, and later began researching the role of snow and glacier melt in the hydrological cycle of the Himalayan region. Himalayan glaciers are called the ‘water towers of Asia,’ because their melt water is the source of drinking water for a population of a billion people. As more and more glaciers melt rapidly, there will be likely reductions in long-term melt water and water supply upon which the region depends for drinking water, agriculture, irrigation, hydropower and biodiversity. If current trends continue, water scarcity could become catastrophic for this region. Dr. Panday is completing a book chapter on his work examining climatic hazards in Central Asia.

Dr. Panday’s current work in the Amazon, similar to the Himalayan region, focuses on another area at the forefront of global environmental change. The water cycle of the Amazon Basin supports the world’s largest tropical forest ecosystem, which is threatened and impacted by direct human activities such as deforestation and conversion to agriculture, as well as by global climate change. Expanding deforestation and forest degradation combined with a changing climate could have catastrophic consequences for the water cycle and lead to extreme weather events, such as droughts and a longer dry season.

Dr. Panday is currently using a hydrological model to compile the effects of extreme climatic events on droughts and flood cycles in the central Amazon Basin under historic and future climate scenarios. His most recent work, a paper on the mitigating role of forest conservation and deforestation-related impacts to the water cycle in the Xingu River Basin, has received much attention in Brazil.

WHRC in the News, Publications, and Events

WHRC in the News

Senior Scientist Max Holmes on the carbon threat posed by permafrost thaw in The Washington Post, “The Arctic climate threat that nobody’s even talking about yet.”

Assistant Scientist Susan Natali’s recent paper cited in The Guardian, “Permafrost ‘carbon bomb’ may be more of a slow burn, say scientists.”


A new paper published in Nature, co-authored by WHRC Assistant Scientist Susan Natali, suggests that thawing permafrost will result in a prolonged release of substantial quantities of greenhouse gases for centuries, which will greatly exacerbate an already warming climate.

WHRC has documented the role of deforestation in minimizing the amount of water moving through the hydrologic cycle in Mato Grosso, Brazil. A recent study published in the Journal of Hydrology led by Postdoctoral Fellow Prajjwal Panday found that these effects are countered by large areas of protected land in the Xingu River Basin of Brazil. The paper demonstrates that forest conservation can play a positive role in regional water budgets.

Postdoctoral Fellow Neeti Neeti published the results from the first nationwide effort to create a comprehensive forest type map for all of India in the International Journal of Applied Earth Observation and Geoinformation. This vegetation type map will be used as baseline map for ecological conservation and climate change-induced adaptation and mitigation measures for India. The map shows that India is still behind by 30 million hectares of the targeted 30% forest cover of the Green India Mission.

Postdoctoral Fellow Johanne Pelletier published an article in Climatic Change, which, as the title suggests, covers the sensitive issue of “Addressing uncertainty upstream or downstream of accounting for emissions reductions from deforestation and forest degradation”. This paper shows that the costs of reducing uncertainty by investing in national forest monitoring systems for REDD+ is low compared to the potential benefits from carbon payments.

More old carbon is respired from permafrost when it is warmed and dried according to a new study co-authored by Assistant Scientist Susan Natali and Associate Scientist John Schade published in Journal of Geophysical Research Biogeosciences. The study also finds that when permafrost thaws and soils become saturated, there is an increase in emissions of methane, which is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. While temperature is a primary driver of permafrost thaw, the amount and form of carbon released, and thus the global warming impact of permafrost thaw, depends on soil moisture.

Senior Scientist Scott Goetz published a paper in Forest Ecology and Management, which developed a much-needed relationship between shrub attributes, such as stem size and height, and carbon stock values. This is rare, especially for remote areas like northeast Siberia and allows researchers to monitor carbon stock change rather than, or in addition to, changes in their density or height.


WHRC hosted an event for local group MaptimeCapeCod on April 11th to do some local mapping work. For more information:

This year marks the 30th anniversary of two Falmouth environmental groups, the Woods Hole Research Center (WHRC) and The 300 Committee (T3C). On April 22, WHRC and T3C will jointly host an Earth Day celebration to recognize this collective milestone. The event begins at 4:00 p.m. with an interpretive walk from WHRC to Peterson Farm and back, followed by a presentation on land use and preservation on Cape Cod at WHRC. The event will conclude with a reception for participants.

What a pleasure to have this chance to welcome Phil Duffy’s clear, strong voice and fearless perspective to leadership on the climate issue in Woods Hole!

The sad, frightening, aspect of the climate issue he mentions is that no effective action has yet been taken to deflect this chain of effects, anticipated three decades back and confirmed as temperatures rise year by year and droughts on every continent feed political and economic chaos. Thus, global biophysics sets clear limits on political and economic adventures.

—George M. Woodwell, WHRC founder

WHRCtreeThe Woods Hole Research Center is an independent research institution where scientists investigate the causes and effects of climate change to identify opportunities for conservation, restoration, and economic development around the globe.