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Anthrax from permafrost? What’s next?
Dr. Philip Duffy, President & Executive Director
Arctic scientists, including ours at WHRC, have been warning for some time that release of greenhouse gases from thawing permafrost might result in potentially calamitous global consequences. Now, a more immediate permafrost-related threat has suddenly emerged.
An outbreak of anthrax in northern Russia this month killed one person and sickened dozens of others. Apparently the deadly anthrax bacteria had been frozen for decades in permafrost and were activated when the ground thawed as temperatures reached 34 degrees Fahrenheit during a recent “heat wave.” Russian officials are working to contain the disease by vaccinating reindeer, the main “vector” by which anthrax is transmitted to humans.
This particular outbreak will presumably be controlled successfully, but the broader implications are thought-provoking. What other pathogens might be released as arctic permafrost continues to thaw? Projections indicate that somewhere between 30 and 70% of permafrost will thaw during this century. Researchers studying the 1918 influenza virus, “the most lethal organism in the history of man,” have obtained samples of the virus from human remains preserved in permafrost. Other researchers suspect that smallpox and bubonic plague are buried in Siberian permafrost. Given that some sections of permafrost have been frozen for tens of thousands of years, it becomes easy to imagine potentially catastrophic threats: unknown pathogens, or pathogens that humans have not encountered for so long that we have little natural resistance to them.
Why did no one anticipate this possibility, which in hindsight seems unsurprising? Actually, some scientists did. “The thawing of permafrost either from global warming or industrial exploitation of circumpolar regions might not be exempt from future threats to human or animal health,” warned two French researchers in 2014, using typically understated language. “Our results … substantiate the possibility that infectious viral pathogens might be released from ancient permafrost layers exposed by thawing, mining, or drilling.” The realization of this previously theoretical possibility forces us to confront a new public health risk from climate change. I hope that we will now be wise enough to take the actions needed to understand and prepare for possible future episodes.
This incident also illustrates how difficult it can be to anticipate specific climate change impacts, even when they fall within broad categories threats that are well-recognized. As another example, we all understand that climate change brings pests to new areas, but no one predicted the devastating effects of pine bark beetles on forests in North America and elsewhere.
Beyond this, there is also the possibility of truly “unknown unknowns,” consequences of climate change that we simply haven’t anticipated. These are bound to exist, and this likelihood lends additional weight to the already-compelling arguments for strong and immediate measures to limit future climate change. That’s our mission at WHRC, and it gets more important every day.
Thanks as always for your interest and support.
WHRC studies potential climate impact of Siberian permafrost
Last month, WHRC Associate Scientist Susan Natali and a group researchers set out for northern Siberia to collect samples from permafrost ecosystems and study the long-term effects of fire on the massive stockpile of ancient carbon in the permafrost. Of particular interest is the form of carbon that will be released as permafrost thaws and how quickly this process will occur with or without fire.
In early July, the work began at a remote monitoring site north of the Siberian village of Chokurdakh. The group then flew to Cherskiy, where WHRC has been working with Russian colleagues at the Northeast Science Station since 2002.
The researchers took dozens of permafrost cores, as well as plant and soil samples from the tundra and processed them at the science station, from which they were eventually shipped to the WHRC lab for analysis over the next few months. Drilling for permafrost cores, writes Research Assistant Ludda Ludwig in her Field Notes entry, is not a simple task:
Once we get the drill as deep as possible, we pull it out, power it down, and plunge out the frozen core. The act of drilling is an adrenaline rush, but looking at the core as it comes it is the most exciting. One person holds the drill tube in her arms, and another pushes on the plunger. This can be difficult, especially if the core starts to freeze inside the tube. My job was to wait at the end and catch it as the core came out. I often felt like a midwife assisting in a permafrost birth. The process is exhausting, sweaty, and everyone gets covered in mud. As the pieces of the core come out, I place them on tinfoil sheets and clean the drill tailings from the surface of the core. I can see all of the ice structures buried below ground as I wipe away the mud. Sometimes it’s layers of lens ice. Sometimes it’s a band of horizontal bedded ice a few centimeters thick. It can be so clear you see a rainbow of light inside. Or you can see globules of suspended soil that seem to be floating in the ice. A few cores were just massive chunks of pure ice. I measure the cores, then swaddle them in tinfoil and place them inside a cooler. (Read more here.)
The Siberia research team also included WHRC Distinguished Visiting Scientist John Schade and student alumni from The Polaris Project and permafrost projects are training the next generation of arctic researchers and engaging the public about the connections between climate change in the Arctic and changes that are occurring around the globe.
New partners, plants, and plans for Projet Équateur
Projet Équateur is WHRC’s pilot project to regenerate forests, improve livelihoods and promote economic development in the northern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The project is led by WHRC Assistant Scientist Glenn Bush and managed in the DRC by Melaine Kermarc. Down the road from Projet Équateur’s office in Mbandaka, is the Jardin botanique d’Eala, the Botanical Garden of Eala, which was founded in 1900.
The garden’s botanist, Gode Lompoko, has been creating a new plot of indigenous “caterpillar” trees, which have been chosen specifically for their talent of attracting different species of native butterflies. The butterflies’ eggs transform into an abundance of caterpillars, which are an important – and favorite – source of protein for local communities and can also be a way of generating income.
Projet Équateur’s partnership with the botanical garden demonstrates to local communities how reforesting degraded lands with such trees can be beneficial to local livelihoods as well as to the environment. The botanical garden is also preparing trials with other non-timber forest products (NTFP), such as growing maranthacea plants that are used as a wrapping in Congolese cuisine and breeding giant earth snails, another local delicacy.
This past June, two new partners joined Projet Équateur. EADE (Equipe d’Aide au Development Endogène) is a local development organization that will be implementing pilot activities to reduce deforestation in the village of Buya I. EADE and its charismatic leader, “Papa Jean” Mbangi, have already begun work with the village, creating wetland rice paddies, using the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) technique, a low water, labor-intensive growing method aimed at increasing rice yield. They will start a new tree nursery in the coming weeks. An initial rice paddy dug in degraded swamp forest has seen success, and the tree nursery will be a testing ground for innovative “zero-deforestation” smallholder palm oil production. In addition, the village will have three new wells, improving access to clean water and reducing waterborne illnesses.
Projet Équateur recently welcomed Eva McNamara, the project’s technical assistant for capacity building, education and training in the DRC. Ms. McNamara, who has been an intern with Projet Équateur at the WHRC campus, will be working with another new project partner, the Higher Institute of Rural Development (ISDR) to help update its curriculum and assist in the installation of a virtual library. By giving local environment and sustainable development experts access to updated courses, teaching materials and the internet, the project aims to achieve long-term benefits in the management of forest resources in Equateur.
The Projet Équateur team continues to collaborate with the Provincial Environmental Minister and to assist the Provincial REDD+ Focal Point, Joseph Zambo, in its mission to encourage sustainable development in Equateur. Thanks to the maps and analysis of WHRC intern Millie Chapman, Projet Équateur is helping local officials better understand drivers of deforestation and carbon stocks in the province. This fall, Projet Équateur will hold a workshop for local officials to develop a REDD+ investment plan for the province.
Fire research in the Amazon and the impact of drought
Increasing frequency of wildfire is a consequence of climate change and an emerging threat to Amazon forests. To shed light on this issue, from 2004 to 2010, WHRC’s Amazon researchers performed large-scale experimental burns at the Tanguro Ranch field station in the Amazon Basin. In those experiments, one 50 hectare forest plot was burned every year and another 50 hectare plot every 3 years. The goal was to understand the ecosystem response to frequent and less frequent fires.
Overall, the plots lost more than one half of their initial biomass and most large trees were killed. Importantly, the scientists found that almost all of the mortality in both plots was associated with fires that occurred in 2007, a severe drought year. With satellite observations they were able to link that to the broader landscape and show that about 12% of the forests of the entire region where WHRC has worked (the Upper Xingu River, an area about the size of the state of New York) burned in 2007, compared to less than 0.5% in the non-drought years.
They found that a few extreme drought events, coupled with forest fragmentation and anthropogenic ignition sources, appear to be causing widespread fire-induced tree mortality and forest degradation across the southeastern Amazon forest. Since the end of the burn experiments in these large plots, the scientists are now intensively studying the recover pathways of the forest, and according to WHRC Senior Scientist Michael Coe, they have found “some exciting results from the recovery period that should be out soon.”
Since 2013 the team has been evaluating the effects of differences in fuel load and micro-climate conditions on fire intensity and tree mortality by performing annual controlled burns of a large number of small forest plots (40 x 40 meters) at Tanguro Ranch. By comparing results at different plots, they will be able to assess the effects of local conditions. These experiments are ongoing, and this year’s burns took place just last week.
Photos by WHRC Assistant Scientist Paulo Brando.
WHRC welcomes new staff – including distinguished Forest Service scientist
Richard A. Birdsey, a long-time researcher with the USDA Forest Service, will join the WHRC staff as a senior scientist on September 1. At the Forest Service, Dr. Birdsey was a Distinguished Scientist and Program Manager for global change research at its Northern Research Station. He is a specialist in quantitative methods for large-scale forest inventories and has pioneered development of methods to estimate national carbon budgets for forest lands from forest inventory data. Dr. Birdsey is a member of a team of scientists developing and implementing the North American Carbon Program, an international effort to improve quantification and understand causes of carbon exchange between land, atmosphere, and oceans. In recent years, he has been working with Mexico and Canada to improve monitoring, verification, and reporting to support climate change mitigation with an emphasis on Reducing Emissions of Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD+). He is also working with the Forest Service National Forest System to implement carbon assessments for all US National Forests.
Also arriving next month is Alicia Peduzzi, who has been a Research Forester working with Dr. Birdsey at the Northern Research Station. Dr. Peduzzi has been a close collaborator of WHRC on both the NASA Carbon Monitoring System and Mexico REDD+ projects. An expert in technical capacity building, she holds a Ph.D. from Virginia Tech and will be a research associate at WHRC.
Andréa Castanho is an environmental physicist interested in understanding the human impacts on the coupled biosphere-atmosphere in terrestrial ecosystems. After receiving her Ph.D. from the University of São Paulo, Dr. Castanho was a WHRC postdoctoral fellow and focused on characterizing interactions between deforestation and climate change effects in the Amazon Basin. She will join the staff in September as a research associate and will again be working with Senior Scientist Michael Coe and the WHRC Amazon Group.
From Texas and UMass, interns at WHRC study carbon
School: Just graduated from the University of Texas – Arlington.
At WHRC: “I worked with Research Associate Kathleen Savage to study the spatial distribution of soil carbon in Howland Forest.”
Next Steps: An internship with the El Yunque Forest Chronosequence Project at El Verde Field Station – Luquillo, Puerto Rico. Longer term, Liomari wants to work on “urban ecosystems and community sustainability.”
School: Senior at UMass Amherst
Next Steps: Either pharmacy school or a biochemistry research position.
EPA official says some climate progress is locked in
Earlier this month, Janet McCabe, a senior Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) official, outlined to a packed auditorium at WHRC the steps that the Obama administration has taken to address climate change. Many of these were implemented through Ms. McCabe’s part of EPA (the Office of Air and Radiation). Ms. McCabe added that the next president would dictate the direction of climate change policy – but that a climate-denying White House would not necessarily be able to undo all of President Obama’s programs.
Ms. McCabe described the EPA’s extensive work to reduce carbon emissions and said that any effort to rescind established regulations could happen only through a process supported by science. “President Obama is really committed to [fighting climate change] – as a father, future grandfather and President of the United States,” Ms. McCabe said.
WHRC brings science to the kids
Last month, WHRC welcomed about 20 students from the Woods Hole Children’s School of Science, a summer program for ages 7–16. Teacher Katherine Schafer brought her middle school environmental science class to learn about the work of WHRC through a short talk and campus tour given by Research Assistants Zander Nassikas and Kylen Solvik.
Four WHRC staff members also greeted more than 200 visitors during the second annual Woods Hole Science Stroll on August 6. During the event, which brought together 12 Woods Hole science organizations, WHRC Research Associate Kathleen Savage and Research Assistant Kylen Solvik showed kids (and kids at heart) how plants remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis.
WHRC offers talks and tours to groups of adults and students as a means of inspiring them in both the science that takes place at WHRC and our energy efficient campus. For information about the campus and tours, see whrc.org/about-whrc/environmentally-friendly-campus.
WHRC in the news, upcoming event
WHRC in the news
Why the state’s plan on wood pellets is drawing criticism. This article in The Boston Globe on the proposed legislation on woody biomass as an energy source quoted WHRC President Phil Duffy, who cautioned against the legislation because of the carbon emissions produced by burning biomass. 30 July.
Charter School Students Head North to Study Climate Change. An article in The Vineyard Gazette noted WHRC’s Dr. Susan Natali recommendation of Alaska as a study site for a class from Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School. She is assisting the class in its research. 2 August.
Janet McCabe, an EPA Director, Speaks at Woods Hole Research Center. The Falmouth Enterprise, 5 August.
A Career Connecting Race Relations and Climate Change. Steve Curwood, long-time WHRC Board member and executive producer and host of PRI’s Living on Earth, spoke with NPR’s Heather Goldstone about his career covering environmental issues – including an early formative conversation with WHRC Founder George M. Woodwell. “When we come right with the political process to deal with climate, we’ll come right with our social process,” said Curwood. “We will be a more loving and supportive species.” Living Lab on The Point, WCAI, 8 August.
2016 summer film series concludes
A Fierce Green Fire – Saturday, Sept. 10–4:30 pm
Wine and cheese reception at 4 pm
Inspired by Philip Shabecoff’s book, this documentary is the first big-picture exploration of the environmental movement. It chronicles 50 years of grassroots and global activism, from conservation to climate change. There will be a Q&A with WHRC President Phil Duffy following the film.
Due to limited seating, reservations are highly recommended. RSVP by email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Woods Hole Research Center is an independent research institute where scientists investigate the causes and effects of climate change to identify and implement opportunities for conservation, restoration, and economic development around the world.