Monthly Newsletter – July 2017

Monthly Newsletter of WHRC


Dr. Philip DuffyYoung scientists can drive innovation – if budget cuts don’t stop them

Dr. Philip Duffy, President & Executive Director

The Woodwell building at WHRC is resonating with extra energy this week, after the return of 13 undergraduate and graduate students from the Arctic. Along with four scientist mentors, a physician, a film-maker, and a New York Times reporter, these students spent two weeks camping on the Alaskan tundra, gathering permafrost samples and otherwise studying the rapid changes underway there. They will spend the next two weeks at WHRC analyzing their results, and delivering preliminary findings in a public symposium on July 27.

These activities are part of WHRC’s Polaris Project, an unusual out of the classroom educational program that we started in 2008. Polaris has proven to be a terrific way of exposing students to the excitement and the challenges of science—real science, not the cleaned-up classroom version. The work is difficult, and good outcomes are not guaranteed; this is not a cookbook laboratory exercise. But the students love it, partly for the reasons just mentioned. They know that what they are doing is important, and they generally rise to the challenges. (To my surprise, they also seem to be happy to spend two weeks disconnected from electronics!)

It’s a shame that likely future government budget cuts threaten the future of this program and others like it. Taking 23 people from all over the country to the Arctic and back (part way by helicopter) isn’t cheap, but the value obtained is incalculable. The Polaris program has a stellar record of success not only in terms of producing useful science, but also in influencing students to pursue careers in science. This is especially gratifying because many of these students are from minority groups, who generally enter science at very low rates.

If we deprive today’s students of opportunities like this, we will needlessly, stupidly, give away the United States’ undisputed leadership in science and technology. That leadership is a big part of the foundation of our economic and military strength. What our economy needs, more than merely a greater number of jobs, is more good jobs: jobs that pay enough to live and raise a family on, and which can stimulate innovation that leads to further economic growth. Careers in science can do that.

If budget cuts make it unattractive for U.S. students to enter science, not only will we lose the advantages that a strong scientific enterprise provides, but we will encourage the best minds to go elsewhere, a double loss relative to countries we compete with. Remember French President Emmanuel Macron’s invitation to climate scientists? The market for scientists is international.

In climate science specifically, the United States produces not only more than any other country but seemingly more than the rest of the world combined. (This became apparent to me when I represented the United States in deliberations related to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.) For this reason, cuts to global change research funding, which are a high priority of the Washington know-nothings, would be a huge loss to not only the United States but to the world.

Potential budget cuts are a real threat, and at WHRC we are doing all we can to promote sane federal science budgets. But given the dedication of the ruling party to self-destructive spending cuts, we’d be foolish to not also prepare ourselves for reduced levels of support from the federal government. That’s what I spend most of my time worrying about, but for the next two weeks I am going to also take some time to enjoy the vibe in the Woodwell building and to feel inspired by what the talented, dedicated, and idealistic Polaris students offer for our future.

Thanks as always for your interest and support.

WHRC top-ranked climate change think tank for fourth consecutive year

In late June, the Woods Hole Research Center was ranked the world’s number one climate change think tank for the fourth consecutive year, by the International Center for Climate Governance (ICCG).

“Climate change is a massive challenge that requires immediate global action,” WHRC President Dr. Philip Duffy said in acknowledging the award. “We are proud to be recognized for providing science that supports climate action on the local, regional, national, and international levels. Our work becomes even more important as the federal government steps back from its roles in climate change research and policy.”

The ICCG is based in Milan, Italy and has been issuing climate change think tank rankings for five years. The June 29th announcement was made at the Annual Conference of the European Association of Environmental and Resource Economists in Athens, Greece.

The ICCG assessed 244 think tanks based on their research and achievements over the course of 2016. The ranking is based on “a quantitative methodology and solid analytical data,” according to the ICCG. Think tanks are assessed on 15 criteria, including publication of peer-reviewed research and participation in United Nations climate change efforts.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, based in Cambridge, MA, and the Centre for International Forestry Research in Indonesia were ranked second and third, respectively.

WHRC scientist named lead author of IPCC special report

Global carbon accounting expert and WHRC Senior Scientist Richard A. Houghton was recently named as a lead author for an upcoming Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on climate change and land.

As part of the IPCC 6th Assessment Report to be released in 2019, the report is titled Climate Change and Land: an IPCC special report on climate change, desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security, and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems.

“It is an honor to be a lead author on this report,” said Dr. Houghton. “The IPCC brings the latest science to bear on how to manage climate change, and I’m very happy to contribute. The issues raised in this report—the connections between land and climate change—are critically important. The supply of land is limited, and there’s intense and growing competition to use land for food production as well as climate mitigation and other ecosystem services. We need to stop degrading it and use it to help stabilize climate.”

Prior to making the appointments, the IPCC received 640 nominations for 104 available lead authors and review editors.

Dr. Houghton’s bookkeeping model to quantify carbon emissions from land management has been used for over 30 years and has informed more than 100 scientific publications, as well as IPCC Assessments and UNFCCC best practice guidelines. Dr. Houghton’s work has been instrumental in determining how large a role forest management can play in removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Dr. Houghton will travel to Oslo in October for the first meeting of IPCC lead authors. In 2007, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded jointly to the IPCC and to former US Vice President Al Gore. Dr. Houghton was a lead author of the IPCC scientific reports recognized by the Nobel Committee.

New study shows climate change sparks more fires in northern regions

A new NASA-funded study found that extreme lightning storms caused by climate change were the main driver of recent massive fire years in Alaska and Canada.

WHRC scientist Brendan Rogers was a co-author on the study, which published June 28 in Nature Climate Change. The study showed that increased lightning associated with climate change is causing more fire ignitions, and that these storms are likely to move farther north with climate warming, potentially altering Northern landscapes.

“These trends are likely to continue,” Rogers said. “We expect an increasing number of thunderstorms, and hence fires, across the high latitudes in the coming decades as a result of climate change. This is confirmed in the study by different climate model outputs.”

The team, which was led by Sander Veraverbeke of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, analyzed satellite images from NASA’s Moderate-Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instruments on NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites and data from ground-based lightning networks to study the cause of the fires, whose numbers have been increasing in recent years. Record numbers of fires occurred in the Canadian Northwest Territories in 2014 and in Alaska in 2015. They found increases of between two and five percent a year in the number of lightning-ignited fires since 1975.

Veraverbeke said that while the drivers of large fire years in the northern high latitudes are still poorly understood, the observed trends are consistent with climate change.

“We found that it is not just a matter of more burning with higher temperatures. The reality is more complex: higher temperatures do also invoke more thunderstorms. Lightning from these thunderstorms is what has been igniting many more fires in these recent extreme events,” Veraverbeke said. “Taken together, we discovered a complex feedback loop between climate, lightning, fires, carbon and forests that may quickly alter northern landscapes.”

WHRC holds forest and climate symposium in Lima

Last month, WHRC brought together South American forest managers and indigenous leaders for a three-day Symposium on Forest Degradation and Climate Vulnerability in Indigenous Territories and Protected Areas of the Amazon.

The meeting took place in Lima, Peru, and is the first of two symposia and five training workshops planned as part of a Moore Foundation grant to help local leaders and land managers understand and use the latest scientific tools.

The symposium participants included WHRC scientists Michael Coe, Marcia Macedo, Alicia Peduzzi, Andrea Castanho, and Alessandro Baccini. Also in attendance were long-time collabora-tors from Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM), Paulo Moutinho and Ane Alencar, as well as government and non-government representatives from Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, and Brazil.

The scientists shared new datasets and tools for understanding the scale of ongoing climate and biomass changes in the region, and all the participants offered their diverse experiences and data needs. They explored ways in which scientific tools could be improved to meet the needs of forest management organizations throughout the Andes-Amazon region. Future meetings of this group will be held in Colombia, Ecuador, and Brazil.

Aspen Ideas Festival taps WHRC scientists

Deputy Director Max Holmes was a speaker at this year’s Aspen Ideas Festival, which describes itself as “the nation’s premier, public gathering place for leaders from around the globe and across many disciplines to engage in deep and inquisitive discussion of the ideas and issues that both shape our lives and challenge our times.”

“Last year when I was invited to attend the Aspen Ideas Festival as an Arthur Vining Davis Foundations Fellow I felt as if I had won the lottery. Being invited again in 2017, this time as a presenter, was more than I envisioned,” said Dr. Holmes, who served on two panels.

The first panel, “Resurrecting the Woolly Mammoth and Other Climate Moonshots,” was moderated by Ross Anderson of The Atlantic.  His article on the Siberian Pleistocene Park in the April issue of The Atlantic was followed by the associated film Mammoth, shown at the Telluride MountainFilm Festival in June. Dr. Holmes has had a long association with the Zimov family, scientists who created the park in an attempt to slow the effects of climate change.

The second panel, “Global Climate Solutions after Paris,” was moderated by New York Times science writer Andrew Revkin. “Both were lively, highly interactive discussions,” reported Dr. Holmes, who flew to Alaska directly after the last panel for the start of the Polaris Project’s expedition in the Yukon River Delta.

Another participant at the Aspen Ideas Festival was WHRC’s Anya Suslova, who was selected as one of twenty Aspen Festival Scholars of 2017. Ms. Suslova presented her work to the other Aspen scholars, a representative group from numerous diverse backgrounds and careers. “It was inspiring to be speaking about climate change in the Arctic to that stimulating and receptive group,” she said.

WHRC welcomes first artist-in-residence

Last month WHRC welcomed its first artist-in-residence, sculptor and environmentalist Heather Clark, who is known for her large-scale installations and performance art.

Ms. Clark is spending the summer at WHRC, conducting research and learning more about climate science as an inspiration for future projects. A background in environmental science and community planning helps her understand the urgency of climate change and also informs her art.

“Climate change is the most pressing issue facing humanity,” Ms. Clark said. “I think that art can have a role in addressing it.”

In her first few weeks at WHRC, Ms. Clark met with scientists to gain an understanding of their work. Those conversations gave her an idea for the general direction of her next project. “I would love to do a project that is a critique––to show where we are––but also if possible one with some optimism to show where we can go as a society.”

In the past, Ms. Clark has completed large-scale installations in communities in an effort to transform a pre-existing space. One such installation, called the “Sky Stage,” is located in Frederick, Maryland. There Ms. Clark transformed the burned-out shell of a building in the center of Frederick’s downtown into a living sculpture and community performance space.

Ms. Clark uses her background in science to create pieces that make statements about the environment and the importance of protecting it. “A lot of the scientific research I did when I was younger still influences the work I do now,” she said.

WHRC specifically appealed to Ms. Clark as a place to conduct her research because of its mission. “The whole idea of a think tank where people are all working on the issue of climate change really appeals to me,” Ms. Clark said. “I’ve been away from science for a long time, so to come back and see where the research currently is has been really great.”

Summer PEP students research forest and soil carbon

WHRC welcomed two students from the Woods Hole Partnership Education Program (PEP) to conduct research on soil forest carbon stocks. Carlos Rivero from Amherst College and Lynette Reed from the University of California, Santa Cruz, are working with WHRC scientists Kathleen Savage and Jonathan Sanderman.

PEP is a five-year-old project of the Woods Hole Diversity Initiative, an institution-wide effort to promote diversity in the Woods Hole science community. The program is designed for college juniors and seniors, who are majoring in the natural sciences, engineering, or mathematics and have completed coursework in oceanography, biology, or environmental science. Each summer, the program begins with a four-week course as a group followed by an internship at a Woods Hole institution for a six-week research project. This year’s opening course on Ocean and Environmental Sciences: Global Climate Change prepared students through lectures, field work, and gathering and analyzing data.

“I have enjoyed the networking opportunities, field trips, and the global climate change course.” said Ms. Reed, who is conducting a forest carbon inventory of the WHRC campus with the help of Ms. Savage.

“It is extremely valuable for any young scientist to have experience doing research in a professional setting like this,” said Dr. Sanderman, who is mentoring Mr. Rivero on a project to measure soil organic matter chemistry using infrared spectroscopy.

The students will work at WHRC through mid-August. Other institutions that participate in PEP are Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, US Geological Survey, Sea Education Association, Marine Biological Laboratory, and NOAA National Marine Fisheries.

WHRC attends international tree mortality meeting

Last month WHRC’s Dr. Paulo Brando attended Max Planck Institute’s International Meeting on Tree Mortality in Hannover, Germany. The goal of the meeting was to design a global monitoring system of forest health based on forest tree mortality.

“You may ask whether we can’t do this using remote sensing,” said Dr. Brando. “Yes, we can, but we still miss a lot of information. It is pretty difficult to know from space why trees died. So it’s necessary to put together field plots, field experiments, remote sensing techniques, and ecosystem models to monitor the ‘health’ of the word’s forests. In so doing, we can reduce the huge uncertainty that exists regarding the future of our forests.”

The three-day conference included interdisciplinary sessions to discuss mortality mechanisms, forest inventory, remote sensing, and modeling, and to plan for future meetings and activities, such as the maintenance of a data depository.

August public lecture at WHRC

Thursday, August 17 – 5:30 p.m. Reception – 6:00 p.m. Lecture
Professor Kira Lawrence, Associate Professor of Geology,
Department Head, Lafayette College

Prof. Lawrence is a paleoceanographer/paleoclimatologist who uses sediments from deep sea cores to study past intervals of sustained warmth that can provide clues to the current warming of the Earth. She will take the audience back to the future with a glimpse into warm climate intervals of the past. Seating is limited and reservations are highly recommended. For more information and reservations, visit

WHRC in the news

An Island Adventure for OHS Sixth Graders ran in the Southeastern Massachusetts Wanderer about students who traveled to Cuttyhunk Island to learn about its history and natural history, including, from WHRC’s Hillary Sullivan, salt marsh zonation and belowground biomass. 19 June.

Phil Duffy was mentioned in an E&E News (subscription required) article about the Congressional Roundtable led by Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), Ranking Member of the Science, Space, and Technology Committee on the science, impacts, and necessary actions to address climate change. 20 June.

Congressional Roundtable sponsored by Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), Ranking Member of the Science, Space, and Technology Committee. Streamed live, 20 June.

Clarion call for scientists: ‘Use your voice … or lose it’ was an E&E News article quoting WHRC’s John Holdren, who said that “scientists are better prepared than most to enter debates about the role of government in supporting science and in using science to inform decision-making.” 22 June.

Climate change is not good, an op-ed by WHRC President Phil Duffy, appeared in The Newport (R.I.) Daily News in rebuttal to Princeton physicist and noted climate change denier, William Happer. 6 July.

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.