Emissions from permafrost put the 1.5o climate goal out of reach
Dr. Philip Duffy, President & Executive Director
As you know if you read our news, WHRC has recently been instrumental in getting the issue of greenhouse gas emissions from arctic permafrost on the radar screens of high-level US policy makers. This is good, but the implications of those emissions for stabilizing climate at an acceptable level aren’t. This was driven home to me recently as I prepared a short talk which I later gave at the University of Chicago. There I showed a simple graphic which makes it clear that expected emissions from permafrost during the remainder of this century (never mind subsequent emissions, which may be much greater) make it impossible to limit global warming to 1.5o C. Even 2o of warming, which may result in some very serious harms, will be very difficult to achieve. This is probably true even if we make heroic efforts to pull CO2 from the atmosphere by aggressively reforesting the tropics, as we have advocated. This is a big deal, because, although we don’t understand as well as we should the consequences of 2o of warming, it looks more and more like some of them could be really bad — like the complete melting of the Greenland ice sheet, which would eventually result in 23 feet of sea level rise.
Given this, I am left wondering why the Paris Agreement bothers to mention the value of “efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5o C,” and why it bothers to suggest that the UN scientific body on climate change (the IPCC) do an analysis comparing the impacts of 1.5o of warming to those of 2o. I can guess that this might have been a diplomatic gesture to countries that are distressed at the implications for them of 2o of warming. (Shockingly, none of my contacts in the State Department is willing to comment about this on the record.)
We should all be clear that it is most likely too late to limit global warming to 1.5o C. Personally, I am still digesting the implications of this, but it seems to suggest some urgent priorities:
Elimination of fossil fuel use should be put on a “war footing.” That is, it should be something we do because we have to, without requiring, for example, that the cost per kWh for solar-generated electricity be less than that produced using gas. Just do it! The necessary investments include not only deployment of renewable generation capacity, but a better electrical grid, and research into better renewable technologies.
We need to use every means possible — and others that are not yet possible — to pull CO2 from the atmosphere. As we’ve shown here at WHRC, aggressive reforestation can help, and the physical and ecological co-benefits should be substantial.
We need more research to understand greenhouse gas emissions from arctic permafrost. Is there really a possibility of a self-reinforcing cycle of warming -> permafrost thaw -> warming? If so, we need to know this, and how to prevent it. This is another area where the WHRC is at the scientific forefront.
George Woodwell may never talk to me again, but I think it’s time to investigate how we might “alter the radiation balance” (e.g., reflect more sunlight back out into space), especially in the Arctic. If emissions from permafrost really have the potential to become uncontrollable, we need a plan to deal with this. I am no fan of (additional) messing with Mother Nature, but it’s time to think the unthinkable.
We also need to understand what the world looks like with 2o, 2.5o, and 3o of warming, both immediately and later, after the climate system has fully adjusted. How high will the sea level be? How many species will have become extinct? What will extreme weather risk look like? These are not the only negative impacts of climate change of course, but they may be the most difficult to adapt to. Crop yields will be reduced, for example, which is a serious issue, but also one that human ingenuity can probably deal with.
This may seem distressing, but there’s more reason for hope now than in a long time. The Paris Agreement offers a real possibility of controlling climate change, albeit not at the level we might like. There’s more policy action now at the national and subnational level than ever, including cap and trade systems and carbon taxes. This is reflected in the latest greenhouse gas emissions, which for the first time ever seem to be poised to go down without an accompanying decline in economic activity. We can fix this if we try; what scares me is the possibility that we won’t, because our leaders either refuse to recognize the problem or refuse to mobilize to tackle it.
WHRC scientists on the go
The AGU Fall Meeting is the largest Earth and space science meeting in the world. Among the WHRC scientists at AGU in San Francisco in December were Kathleen Savage, Jonathan Sanderman, Brendan Rogers, and Susan Natali. Ms. Savage presented several posters, including one on her long-time research on forest soils at Howland Forest in Maine, and Dr. Sanderman presented his work on soil organic matter. In another presentation, Dr. Rogers discussed the “browning” trend of some boreal forests in Alaska and Canada during the summer that scientists believe is tied to warming and drought. He also presented a poster on the vulnerability of tree species in three eastern US national parks, and he convened a session on links between fire, vegetation, climate, and humans from the local to global scale in a warming world.
At AGU, Dr. Natali gave a presentation about permafrost thaw and soil moisture effects on litter decomposition, and she was co-author on sixteen other arctic-carbon related presentations. She also led a session on carbon emissions from the Arctic during the “cold seasons” at the recent Permafrost Carbon Network meeting. With new funding from NASA, Dr. Natali is beginning work on a project to examine the effects of forest fires on ground thaw in Alaska’s Yukon Delta.
This month at the National Academy of Sciences Arctic Matters Day, Senior Scientist Max Holmes gave a keynote presentation on permafrost thaw and global climate change. The audience of over 700 included congressional staffers, officials from federal agencies (including the State Department, NSF, EPA, NOAA, USGS, and DOD), foreign embassy officials, NGO and industry representatives, and the general public. Other keynote speakers included Richard Alley (Penn State University), who spoke about Greenland ice melt and sea level rise, and Jennifer Francis (Rutgers), who discussed possible links between arctic warming and the recent cold and snowy New England winters.
Update from the Congo Basin
Projet Equateur in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is in its final year. New initiatives for 2016 include installing a ‘virtual’ library at the Institut Supérieur de Développement Rural, a university in Mbandaka, where the project is based. The library will give students and teachers access to materials on sustainable development practices and climate change and forest issues. Assistant Scientist Glenn Bush and Project Manager Melaine Kermarc are collaborating with the provincial REDD+ organization to help develop the jurisdictional REDD+ program. The Projet Equateur team also works closely with the DRC Green Climate Fund representative in an effort to stimulate private sector investment in renewable energy and zero deforestation agriculture in conjunction with current community forestry and capacity building activities.
Recently, the team has held an ongoing “Ask Me Anything” session on Reddit to answer questions from the general public about Projet Equateur and the work being done in the Congo Basin to halt deforestation. The questions are many and varied, such as whether the project has been a success. Here is the team’s insightful answer:
“There are two ways to look at this, first from the perspective of the ‘project’s objectives,’ which basically means that we implement all the activities that we are funded to implement. This would be success from the perspective of our donors. The other way to look at this would be less ‘measured’ and would need to be seen over the long term to discover whether our work was a successful catalyst for change. For example, this could mean that the research we carry out is considered by policy makers and helps them make informed decisions regarding their natural resource management, or that students and professionals benefit from our training and use it in their professional careers. It could also mean that farmers use new techniques to increase their productivity and conserve their forest. So, really, only time will tell. From our perspective, we have already had some success. We have learned and continue to learn a tremendous amount, and we have seen incredible passion and hope in the students with whom we have worked at the local universities.”
WHRC at COP21: Further reflections on the Paris Climate Meetings
Senior Scientist Richard A. Houghton
The most significant and inspirational aspects of my participation in COP21 were the conversations with old and new acquaintances. WHRC’s booth was constantly crowded with visitors. It seems that the details of land-use change and carbon emissions are of interest to far more than the three or four people in the world who’ve been working on the topic for decades. Rather, there is widespread and growing interest, in part because the nations of the world are beginning to construct their own carbon budgets and trying to understand the subtleties of why existing estimates differ from each other.
As a result of these conversations, I agreed to review half a dozen manuscripts and identified joint research projects and possible new papers with another half dozen investigators, many of whom I have never encountered either in press or in person.
It was rewarding to see how many visitors were engaged and impressed by our booth, our research, and the relevance of our work in pushing the frontiers of both science and policy. Casual visitors ended up staying for long discussions. I couldn’t break away to greet everyone I recognized. The response was confirmation that our research is focused on some of the most critical issues and, as a result, the issues – and we – are gaining attention.
Senior Scientist and Deputy Director Scott Goetz
My primary objective in attending COP21 was to help ensure that the UN program Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD+) remained part of the Paris Agreement. REDD+ is particularly important to the mission of WHRC because it is focused on forests and the benefits they provide, which includes not only climate change mitigation but also habitat for biodiversity, sustainable resources for people, and other ecosystem services such as clean air and water.
COP21 was expected to be more fruitful than previous climate negotiations, and indeed it was. The fact that REDD+ prevailed is a significant achievement in valuing forests and forested landscapes, and it reflects the work of many people at WHRC as well as our partners and collaborators around the world. Other aspects of the Paris Agreement were also successful, including the commitments (INDCs) of some 186 nations to limit global warming.
Now that REDD+ is included in the Paris Agreement, we can move into advancing its implementation in tropical forest nations. Coming into COP21, we published and promoted a unique synthesis (in Environmental Research Letters) reviewing the current state-of-the-art and future prospects for implementing the operational aspects of REDD+ related to forest monitoring. That synthesis lays out a framework for advancing all REDD+ components than can be informed by a combination of field measurements and satellite remote sensing.
WHRC played an active role in many aspects of the COP21 process, which included a plethora of parallel activities. Not only were eight WHRC scientists involved in various aspects of the COP, but eight members of our Board were equally engaged in Paris, and that shows real commitment and emphasizes the critical relevance of WHRC’s mission.
3D film on tropical rainforests uses WHRC data
3D Earth: Rainforests is a new production opening at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco on February 5th. Using biomass maps and data provided by WHRC Associate Scientists Alessandro Baccini and Wayne Walker, this film explores tropical rainforests from the canopy to the forest floor. With 3D glasses, viewers have a close look at leafcutter ants that transport nutrients and turn over soil, sloths whose lifestyle provides a habitat for algae and fungi, and the abundant life in the treetops. Satellite imagery in the film shows the impact of rainforests on Earth’s water, energy, and carbon cycles. The film will have a six-month run at the Academy.
Events and Publications
On Saturday, January 30 from 4 – 6 pm, WHRC presents SPOTLIGHT ON PARIS: An insider’s view of the Paris Agreement. Come hear WHRC scientists discuss their roles at the recent COP21 conference in Paris and answer questions about the climate negotiations and the historic agreement. A reception will follow the presentation. Reservations are recommended. RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org.
In March of 2016 the Woods Hole Research Center and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution will offer the Mekong River Science Expedition, a rare opportunity for guests to join the scientists of the Global Rivers Observatory and view the ecology and chemistry of the Mekong River. For more information or to participate in this unique journey, contact Beth Bagley, 508-444-1517 or email@example.com.
Brando, P.M., C. Oliveria-Santos, W. Rocha, R. Cury, and M.T. Coe. 2016. Effects of experimental fuel additions on fire intensity and severity: unexpected carbon resilience of a neotropical forest. Global Change Biology. doi:10.1111/gcb.13172
Castello, L., and M.N. Macedo. 2015. Large-scale degradation of Amazonian freshwater Ecosystems. Global Change Biology. doi:10.1111/gcb.13173
Salmon, V.G., P. Soucy, M. Mauritz, G. Celis, S.M. Natali, M.C. Mack, and E.A.G. Schuur. 2015. Nitrogen availability increases in a tundra ecosystem during five years of experimental permafrost thaw. Global Change Biology. doi:10.1111/gcb.13204
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.