Monthly Newsletter – February 2015

Monthly Newsletter of WHRC

Dr. Philip Duffy“Geoengineer” the climate by managing the biosphere

Dr. Philip Duffy, President & Executive Director

The National Academy of Sciences this week released a much-heralded report on “geoengineering” of climate: large-scale interventions that alter climate in ways that compensate for human greenhouse gas emissions. (Sometimes the term also encompasses methods to pull CO2 out of the atmosphere.) The most widely discussed method is to place tiny reflecting particles in the stratosphere, which would cool the climate in the same way that a large volcanic eruption does.

No reputable scientist I know thinks this is a good idea, although some support studying it (and I plead guilty to having written a few papers about it). The problems include

  • unintended consequences: we don’t know what they might be;
  • limited effectiveness: even at best, regional climatic changes would still be significant, and ocean acidification is not improved at all;
  • governance: who makes the decision to go ahead with this? Who is responsible for continually maintaining it? and
  • an “easy out:” if we mask climate change with geoengineering, then politicians might lose what little motivation they have to actually address the problem;
  • commitment: if we put a geoengineering system in place and continue to emit greenhouse gases, then stopping the geoengineering would result in very rapid climate change. In that case, we would have to keep a geoengineering system in place for thousands of years.

I could go on, but that’s enough, isn’t it?

Most folks who say we should “consider” geoengineering suggest only a limited-time deployment, while we transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. If we’re going to consider that, wouldn’t it be better to achieve the same goal by managing the biosphere? A recent paper by the WHRC Senior Scientist Richard “Skee” Houghton shows that aggressive management of the biosphere (halting deforestation, regrowing degraded areas, etc.) could pull substantial amounts of CO2 out of the atmosphere for several decades. In fact, in the best case the biosphere could absorb an amount equal to about half of global CO2 emissions today. That’s a lot! And rather than incur the unknown risks of geoengineering, restoring the biosphere has good side-effects: healthier species and ecosystems, greater biodiversity, cleaner water, and so on. Of course, it’s not so simple. A concerted, global scale effort would be needed, and large-scale reforestation can itself affect regional climate. But isn’t this a better direction for research and advocacy than science-fiction type climate manipulation?

Changing the paradigm: Dr. John Schade

Dr. John Schade and an assistant. Photo by Chris Linder

Associate Scientist John Schade is a biogeochemist who joined the WHRC arctic team to work with Assistant Scientist Susan Natali and Senior Scientist Max Holmes on the next generation of the Polaris Project, which involves undergraduate students in polar research. He was drawn to the research subject, arctic change, and the mission of the Polaris Program to train the next generation of arctic scientists. Dr. Schade has always been curious as to how ecosystems work and how science can be used to understand and address climate change. For him, climate change research is unique because it requires an interdisciplinary whole system approach and a deep level of specialty subject area knowledge.

Dr. Schade sees this multilevel approach as a unique opportunity for students’ intellectual development, because climate change and its impacts cannot be fully understood without including the social science dimension along with natural sciences. Further, if the science is to impact real world decisions on the ground, the people affected and the economic costs associated with a changing climate must be factored in.

This real world impact is what drew Dr. Schade to WHRC and what continues to draw students to the Polaris Program. But it is not just the students that benefit from their involvement with the program; the scientists benefit, as well, because the students bring along with them fresh eyes clouded by few preconceptions. Dr. Schade is quick to point out that undergraduates have driven the Polaris research agenda in ways the senior scientists did not anticipate. As an example, a recent Polaris alumnus, Nigel Golden, thought to look at ground squirrels and their role in carbon release in a warming arctic. Together with Dr. Natali, Nigel created a media stir with their report that linked squirrels to carbon release, and a new line of inquiry was born.

Dr. Schade envisions many more student programs covering all of the areas where WHRC works. According to him, “WHRC’s focus on linking the best scientific research with effective policy presents an important opportunity to train students in the interdisciplinary approaches necessary to develop creative solutions to global environmental challenges.”

Black Spruce: Climate Superheroes?

Dr. Brendan Rogers

Boreal forests represent one third of global forest capital, and because warming is occurring at least two times faster in the high northern latitudes, these forests could play a leading role in the global climate system. A new paper led by WHRC Postdoctoral Fellow Brendan Rogers finds that fires in Eurasian forests impact the climate system quite differently than those in North America and that individual tree species are the cause.

Wildfires are a part of the natural processes occurring within most boreal forests, but the fires burn differently by continent. High-intensity crown fires are more common in North America, whereas low intensity surface fires are frequent in Eurasia. This study combined remote sensing and climate reanalysis data with forest inventories to compare boreal fire dynamics between the two continents. Dr. Rogers and colleagues found that Eurasian fires were less intense and less destructive, resulting in different climate feedbacks. In particular, the loss of leaves and branches from North American fires expose underlying snow and allow more sunlight to be reflected in spring. This has a cooling effect on the climate. In Eurasian forests where tree cover remains relatively intact, this effect is much smaller. Added to the warming from emitted CO2, the overall impact is thought to be neutral or warming.

Typical high-intensity crown fire in Canada. Photo courtesy of Brian Stocks.

The researchers identified species-specific fire traits in each of the two systems that strongly influence the different fire regimes. In North America, for example, tree species known as “fire embracers” have evolved to spread and be destroyed by fire. Mature stands of black spruce, which are ubiquitous in Canada and Alaska, burn like a torch and cause intense crown fires that kill the canopy. In Eurasia, on the other hand, the thick bark and sparse lower branches of “fire resisters” allow them to largely survive flames, which creep along the forest floor consuming underbrush. According to the study, because the fires in Alaska and Canada are dominated by black spruce, this phenomenon may represent the single largest influence of individual species on continental-scale patterns of carbon and energy flow, except for humans.

WHRC in the News, Publications, and Events

WHRC in the News

Senior Scientist Richard A. Houghton attended a meeting in London convened by HRH The Prince of Wales on “Forests, Climate Change and Development” to discuss the current state of the world’s great tropical forests and their unique role in the climate system. The goal of the meeting was to bring representatives from tropical nations, donor nations and NGOs together with academics and business leaders confronting supply chain challenges to evaluate policy responses to the ongoing challenge of deforestation across the tropics.

Postdoctoral Fellow Brendan Rogers was featured on a NASA Earth Observatory web page entitled “High-Latitude Forest Fires Behave Differently in North America and Eurasia.” Dr. Rogers’ work shows that forest fires in North America spread faster, burn hotter and longer, send smoke higher into the atmosphere, and kill more trees than fires in Eurasia.


A new paper co-authored by Postdoctoral Fellow Neeti Neeti published in the International Journal of Remote Sensingentitled “Characterizing implications of two dimensional space-time orientations for principal components analysis of geographic time series,” explores new ways of extracting useful information from satellite data; it introduces four new modes of principal component analysis (PCA) to investigate space-time variability in an image time series.

Postdoctoral Fellow Johanne Pelletier and Senior Scientist Scott Goetz co-authored a short article in Environmental Research Letters on “Baseline data on forest loss and associated uncertainty: advances in national forest monitoring.” Establishing “baseline” (i.e. before implementation of climate policy) rates of deforestation is a key part of the United Nations process to minimize climate change; this paper describes recent experience doing that.

As the climate warms, organic carbon currently frozen in permafrost will be available to microbial decomposers, which can release carbon into the atmosphere as greenhouse gases. Because of the huge quantities of carbon in arctic permafrost, this release of carbon has the potential to greatly accelerate climate change. It is critical, therefore, to understand this process. A new paper published in Global Change Biology, co-authored by Assistant Scientist Susan Natali, entitled “A pan-arctic synthesis of CH4and CO2 production from anoxic soil incubations,” investigates how higher temperatures and changing vegetation due to a warming climate lead to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

A new paper published in Nature Geoscience entitled “Influence of tree species on continental differences in boreal fires and climate feedbacks,” led by Dr. Brendan Rogers, finds that fires in Eurasian forests burn differently and impact the climate system quite differently than those in North America, and that differences in dominant tree species are to blame.


Cathy Kellon of Ecotrust in Portland, OR, presented “Catalyzing radical, practical change in the Pacific Northwest” in the WHRC Harbourton Auditorium on February 11.  Ms. Kellon directs the Water and Watersheds Program at Ecotrust where she oversees the Whole Watershed Restoration Initiative, a multi-million dollar, collaborative effort to restore the major ecological functions of high priority river basins in Oregon and Washington.

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.