Monthly Newsletter – January 2015

Monthly Newsletter of WHRC

Dr. Philip DuffyNo Way to Run a Planet

Dr. Philip Duffy, President & Executive Director

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”

As I begin my tenure as WHRC’s new president, I feel new hope, but also see reasons for increasing concern about climate change.

The good news is that there is more substantive action on climate change now than ever before. In their recent joint announcement, the US and China—the world’s two biggest emitters—pledged reductions in emissions that are far more than symbolic. At around the same time, the EU made a similarly substantive pledge. Together, these three parties produce more than half of global CO2 emissions today, so the promised reductions will make a real dent in global emissions.

Not only are these pledges important per se, but they give us the moral authority we have so far lacked to encourage other countries to get on board. Recent announcements by India (the 3rd-largest emitter), for example, reversed some long-held positions and clearly show that they are “feeling the heat.” Of course, much, much more will need to be done, but at last we seem to be on the right path.

But will all of this be too little too late? In April, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) presented results showing that it is only barely possible to meet the goal of keeping the global temperature within 2 degrees C of its “preindustrial” (natural) value. Notwithstanding how widely cited this goal is, it is pretty arbitrary—we don’t know if it is actually the best goal. That said, with the stakes as high as they are, wouldn’t it be smart to leave a bigger safety margin? This is no way to run a planet.

The reason why the work that WHRC scientists are doing in the Arctic is so important is that it will help answer if 2 degrees is the right goal, and if not, what is? And the work we’re doing in the Amazon, by keeping warming as small as possible, will help to meet whatever goal turns out to be best. In both regions, our work is on the forefront of both science and policy, and I am excited to be able to help it move forward.

photo by John Wood

AGU: Comic-Con for Science

Established in 1919, the American Geophysical Union (AGU) is the preeminent association for Earth scientists. Each fall AGU convenes its annual meeting, which brings together from around the world the greatest minds in the Earth and space sciences to share the most exciting research of the past year. This year, no less than 19 members of WHRC’s research staff presented their work at the AGU meeting, including former WHRC president and current AGU president-elect, Eric A. Davidson.

Among the 24,000 scientists at the San Francisco meeting, WHRC researchers received considerable attention. Assistant Scientist Susan Natali, Senior Scientist Max Holmes and Associate Scientist John Schade along with 10 of their undergraduate students presented results from WHRC’s arctic program, the Polaris Project. Undergraduate Polaris student Megan Behnke won the prestigious AGU David E. Lumley Young Scientist Scholarship (given to one student each year), and another Polaris alumnus, Nigel Golden, was among ten early career scientists selected for a round-table discussion with US Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell. Drs. Susan Natali and Scott Goetz received international media attention for presentations related to climate change in the Arctic.

The Brazil team, led by Senior Scientist Michael Coe, and including Assistant Scientist Marcia Macedo, Research Associate Paul Lefebvre and Postdoctoral Fellow Prajwal Panday, reported the results of their ongoing experiments in Brazil. Dr. Coe gave nine presentations in less than five days. Cartographer Greg Fiske discussed his work with both the Polaris and Global Rivers projects, and Research Associate Kathleen Savage described her ongoing soil/nitrogen research with Dr. Davidson.

The annual AGU conference provides an excellent opportunity for WHRC scientists to meet with colleagues from around the world to share findings and discuss the big environmental questions of the moment. It is the place to be.


In 2008, then head of NASA’s Carbon Cycle and Ecosystems program, Dr. Diane Wickland, asked American scientists, “What’s the next big thing?” Many scientists responded, including WHRC Senior Scientist Scott Goetz, whose answer eventually became the Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE), the only project ultimately embraced by NASA.

Dr. Goetz and his colleagues had a simple idea: put together a cross-disciplinary team of scientists to understand how vulnerable the Arctic is to climate change. NASA liked the proposal and asked Dr. Goetz and his collaborators to scope out an arctic field campaign. An initial workshop in 2009 brought together about 100 arctic biologists, hydrologists, vegetation ecologists, permafrost experts and remote sensing scientists. Following release of the scoping study, broader science community input was solicited and an expert panel reviewed the comments, concluding that an important piece of understanding changes in the Arctic had been missed, i.e., what is happening to the people of the Arctic and how are they adapting to the changes? To that end, a second workshop was convened in 2012 to bring together another 100 participants from the natural and social sciences, as well as land management agencies, to understand how the people of the Arctic are being affected by – and responding to – climatic changes already occurring.

After the second workshop, a 22-person science definition team, including Dr. Goetz, was formed to develop a detailed experiment plan, identifying the specific scientific questions to guide a 10-year research program. The collective effort outlined the most substantial cross-disciplinary arctic field experiment to date, which will bring together scientists, land managers and arctic communities to address the problem of climate change and its implications.

ABoVE is designed to be executed in three phases, with the first round of experiment proposals to be submitted to NASA this March and announcements of those selected from the competition to be made by the fall of 2015.

Field experiments in the Arctic are challenging in the best of times, yet the rate of permafrost thaw and the magnitude of carbon emissions could have a substantial impact on the global climate system and as such is a high priority for NASA. Dr. Goetz hopes to work with NASA and the ABoVE team to harness the power of remote sensing to extend the science gained from ABoVE to the entire Arctic, including those areas where field experiments are impractical. The future of the Arctic, its communities and ecosystems, will have implications for the entire globe.

Good luck, Dr. Goetz!

WHRC in the News, Publications, and Events

WHRC in the News

Wayne Walker featured in aRolling Stone article, “Murder in the Rainforest.”

Richard Houghton in The New York Times story, “Restored Forests Breathe Life Into Efforts Against Climate Change.”

Susan Natali featured in a BBC online article, “Arctic ground squirrels unlock permafrost carbon.”

Susan Natali on RTE Radio (Irish Public Radio) on “Arctic Ground Squirrels Unlock Permafrost Carbon.”


A new paper entitled “Guiding Agricultural Expansion to Spare Tropical Forests,” published inConservation Letters and co-authored by Dr. Alessandro Baccini, identifies more than 125 million hectares (309 million acres) of already-degraded lands across the tropics most suitable for expanding industrial agricultural production.

In a paper entitled “Biomass allometry for alder, dwarf birch, and willow in boreal forest and tundra ecosystems of far northeastern Siberia and north-central Alaska,” published inForest Ecology and Management, Dr. Scott Goetz and colleagues developed relationships for land managers and researchers to understand ongoing changes in shrubs in the arctic.

Another paper by Dr. Scott Goetz and colleagues in Global Change Biology finds, as the title suggests, “Greater shrub dominance alters breeding habitat and food resources for migratory songbirds in Alaskan arctic tundra.”

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’s 2014 year-end appeal resulted in the planting of 109 trees!

Ecology’s Progress

One of the Center’s most significant contributions over the years has been definition of the importance of forests as in determining the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere. I was astonished a few days ago to discover the extent of the Center’s “market penetration” with that information. The insight came from the report of a corporation that is paid to monitor and report to the energy gods the production of the modest array of solar electric panels installed recently on our southerly-facing roof in Woods Hole. The first report I received announced that the production of my installation in December was “Two Trees” (of carbon reduction)!

Can we anticipate electric meters calibrated in WHRC Tree Units?

—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.