Monthly Newsletter – August 2015

Monthly Newsletter of WHRC

Dr. Philip DuffyIs the Clean Power Plan Enough?

Dr. Philip Duffy, President & Executive Director

This month the White House announced the most powerful measures yet to limit US emissions of climate-warming greenhouse gasses. The “Clean Power Plan” will cut CO2 emissions from US power plants to 32% below 2005 levels by 2030. Because the electric power sector is a major contributor (31%) of US greenhouse gas emissions, this is a significant step. The plan is a result of years of effort and was designed with input from all affected parties, including the public and the utility industry. It also gives states a great degree of flexibility to decide how they will make reductions, a feature which is intended to allow reductions to be made in the simplest, most efficient manner.

This announcement is the latest in a series of regulations by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that curb emissions of greenhouse gases. Others include higher mileage standards for vehicles and restrictions on emissions of methane (a very powerful greenhouse gas). Regulation by the EPA was not the Administration’s first choice for how to tackle climate change. But when Congress declined to pass comprehensive climate change legislation in 2010, the White House was left with few other options. Ironically, the EPA “weapon” was handed to the Administration as a result of a long process initiated by the state of Massachusetts under governor Mitt Romney. Massachusetts led a coalition that sued the EPA in 2005, at which time the EPA claimed it had no authority to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. The lawsuit was successful and was upheld by higher courts, and as a result the EPA is required to regulate greenhouse gases if it finds them to be a “clear and present danger to the public health and welfare,” which it did in 2009. (Thank you, Governor Romney.)

Together with other measures, the Clean Power Plan will make a really important dent in US greenhouse gas emissions. But, is this enough? you may ask. Certainly it won’t completely solve the climate change problem; nothing short of a complete cessation of global emissions will do that. But it’s a substantive start, and partly as a result of our actions, other nations are making similar, commitments. That is really encouraging. Beyond this, the psychological and political impact of these actions may prove to be hugely valuable. Why? Because the plan is going to work, and contrary to claims by “certain parties,” the sky is not going to fall. Life will go on; indeed, it will be better!

WHRC Scientists Score NASA ABoVE Awards

ABoVE logoThis week, NASA announced the recipients of the first round of funding for its Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE) program. Six years in the making, the program seeks to bring together cross-disciplinary teams of natural and social sciences to understand how vulnerable the Arctic is to climate change and how the people of the Arctic are being affected by – and responding to – climate change. This is the first of three phases envisioned for the next decade.

The selection process for NASA proposals is notoriously competitive. The ABoVE process began in 2008 with an open call for concept notes, which were reviewed by a panel of experts. Two were selected, and only the ABoVE concept survived the long process of workshops, community input, science definition team formulation, experiment design and planning, and external reviews. In 2014, NASA announced an opportunity to submit full research proposals for ABoVE implementation. Over 100 proposals were submitted and reviewed, and from these, 21 have been selected for funding. Of the winning proposals, WHRC scientists lead three, and WHRC scientists are co-investigators on two others. In addition, WHRC Deputy Director and Senior Scientist Scott Goetz was selected as the overall Science Lead for the ABoVE program, an honor (and responsibility) which recognizes his expertise in the science of monitoring and modeling arctic and boreal forest change.

In addition to Dr. Goetz, Assistant Scientist Susan Natali, Postdoctoral Fellow Brendan Rogers, and Associate Scientist Christopher Schwalm will receive funding from ABoVE. Dr. Natali will lead a project examining and predicting the role of winter carbon emissions in the Arctic. Dr. Rogers will lead a project to better understand the increasing role of fires in the high northern latitude climate system and possible strategies for better management. Dr. Goetz is also the lead investigator on a project which will look at the implications of a warming-induced arctic-boreal biome shift, as well as a co-investigator on a proposal to examine the effects of fire on permafrost carbon stocks. Dr. Schwalm will be co-investigator of a project to integrate the data and models utilized by ABoVE researchers.

This level of success in a highly competitive environment underscores the preeminence of WHRC in arctic and boreal science across several disciplines and the relevance of our science to the land management and socioecological systems that ABoVE emphasizes.

Congratulations to all!

The Polaris Project 2015

Polaris Project studentsThis year marks the eighth year of the Polaris Project, a collaborative educational project of WHRC, which seeks to inspire and train the next generation of arctic scientists within the landscape of the remote Siberian Arctic. The goal was simply conceived: provide students a rich environment for scientific exploration, the framework for the scientific method, the guidance and support of scientist mentors, and let the magic of curiosity unfold.

What has happened in the course of eight years is nothing short miraculous. Sixty-nine students of diverse backgrounds have completed the program, and 41 are working toward advanced degrees in science. The program has produced 23 journal articles and 111 abstracts to international scientific conferences, and two Polaris alumni have been recognized by the American Geophysical Union (AGU).

This year’s Polaris Project was more of a homecoming in that, rather than inviting new students, the project welcomed Polaris alumni to return and continue their research projects. Mackenzie Kuhn and Nigel Golden returned to Siberia with well-defined research projects.

Last year, Nigel Golden sought to understand the role of ground squirrels in tundra carbon exchange and found that burrowing ground squirrels expedited the release of carbon dioxide from soils. He returned this summer to measure the legacy effects of abandoned burrows on carbon dioxide release and found the carbon effects of active and abandoned burrows to be nearly identical, suggesting that wildlife impacts on carbon cycling in the Arctic can have long-term legacy effects on soil carbon pools.

Mackenzie Kuhn returned to build upon her research examining the role of small wetlands in carbon exchange in the tundra. Last year, she found that these small wetland areas produced more greenhouse gases than had been previously understood. The growing prevalence of fire in the Arctic led Mackenzie to compare the carbon dynamics of those pristine wetlands with wetlands found within a burned forest area. She was surprised to discover that the carbon fluxes in both regions were much higher than she anticipated. These results suggest that increasing fire in the Arctic may shift some Siberian forests from a methane source to a sink, representing a critical positive feedback to climate change.

The Polaris Project will continue to engage young minds like Nigel and Mackenzie. Look for Polaris Project 2016.

WHRC in the News, Publications, Recent Grants, and Events

WHRC in the News featured Senior Scientist Richard A. Houghton describing a possible link between irrigation for agriculture and carbon storage.

Assistant Scientist Susan Natali‘s research on a warmer and drier Arctic was featured in EOS, a publication of the American Geophysical Union.

Assistant Scientist Glenn Bush and Project Manager Melaine Kermarc of WHRC’s Projet Equateur met with the Governor of Equateur Province and the Provincial Commissioner for the Environment of the Democratic Republic of the Congo to present the initial results of the WHRC pilot REDD project in the Congo.


A new paper, entitled “Hidden Carbon Sink beneath the Desert,” co-authored by Senior Scientist Richard A. Houghton and published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, describes a potentially vast carbon sink in aquifers below the Earth’s deserts that may contain more carbon than all of the plants on land. The global carbon budget describes the exchange of carbon between sources of carbon emissions to the atmosphere, such as fossil fuel combustion or deforestation, and sinks of carbon, such as forests and oceans, that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is consistently less than the amount carbon released into the atmosphere, indicating a hidden sink. Thus, Houghton and colleagues’ finding of a carbon sink beneath the desert is of major significance.

A new study co-authored by Associate Scientist Christopher Schwalm and published in the journal Science finds that droughts impede the ability of forests to grow and absorb carbon for a much longer period than previously understood, and the effects can linger for up to four years after a drought event. Until now, the world’s forests were thought to take up nearly 15% of all CO2 emissions each year, a percentage derived from a calculation that assumes forests rebound quickly from the extreme droughts that have become more common in a warming world. But, as the Science paper suggests, the Earth’s forests are capable of storing less carbon than calculated by previous climate models.

The great forests of the tropics hold one quarter of all the carbon stored in living organic matter, and what happens to these forests can significantly impact the global climate system. A new study by Drs. Alessandro Baccini, Richard Houghton, Scott Goetz, and others, published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, is the first to provide a clear picture of carbon emissions from tropical forest losses and how much of those emissions come from the conversion of natural forests versus managed forests and plantations.

In a new paper published in in Nature Communications, Senior Scientist Robert Max Holmes and others have examined the carbon signature in arctic river samples to determine the fate of ancient permafrost carbon once it enters river systems. Global warming continues to thaw permafrost soils that have been frozen in the Arctic for millennia. As these soils thaw, ancient carbon is released into streams and rivers, where it can either flow to the ocean or be consumed or transformed in rivers. The authors found that this ancient carbon is the preferred snack of microbes and as such is more vulnerable to being released into the atmosphere as CO2, becoming a further amplification of global warming.

Assistant Scientist Susan Natali is co-author of a new paper published in Global Change Biology that compares the effects of a warming climate on permafrost ecosystems in Sweden and Alaska. Natali and colleagues documented an increase in carbon dioxide emissions from both locations during the growing season, a fact which could have a profound effect on future warming trajectories.

Recent Grants

WHRC was highly successful in recently announced project selections for NASA’s Arctic Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE). Three proposals led by WHRC scientists, and two additional proposals on which WHRC scientists are co-investigators, were selected following a competitive review process. In addition, Senior Scientist Scott Goetz was selected as NASA’s overall Science Lead for the ABoVE program. All in all, WHRC is involved in 5 of 21 NASA awards, out of more than 100 proposals submitted.

Assistant Scientist Susan Natali will lead a project examining and predicting the role of winter carbon emissions in the Arctic. Postdoctoral Fellow Brendan Rogers will lead a project to achieve a better understanding of the increase in fires in the northern latitudes and possible strategies to for improved management. Senior Scientist Scott Goetz is the lead investigator on a project looking at changes in arctic biomes with climate change, as well as a co-investigator on a proposal to examine the effects of fire on permafrost carbon stocks. Associate Scientist Christopher Schwalm will be co-investigator of a project to integrate the data and models utilized by ABoVE researchers.


MOD-Image_v1_cropped_webFree public film screening of “Merchants of Doubt.” On Saturday, August 29 at 4:30 p.m., the Woods Hole Research Center will show the award-winning documentary film “Merchants of Doubt.” The event is free and open to the public and will be held the Center’s Harbourton Auditorium. Reservations are highly recommended. Email: or call 508-444-1521

JShaw_120629_D8H_4912_webPublic Lecture: Why Everyone is Talking About Permafrost Thaw. On Thursday, September 17 at 5:30 p.m., Senior Scientist R. Max Holmes and Assistant Scientist Susan Natali will discuss how permafrost thaw and climate change will impact us all. The event is free and open to the public and will be held the Center’s Harbourton Auditorium. Reservations are highly recommended. Email: or call 508-444-1521

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