|Nature’s Solution to Climate Change
WHRC in the News, Grants, and Publications
Nature’s Solution to Climate Change
Dr. Philip Duffy, President & Executive Director
To be clear, it’s only part of the solution, but it’s a significant part, we already know how to do it, and the side effects are probably almost entirely positive. What am I talking about? “Restoration of the biosphere”: large-scale restoration of land that has been partly or wholly deforested, together with the cessation of ongoing deforestation.
It’s easy to show that large-scale restoration has the potential to remove significant amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and thereby actually reverse climate change and its impacts, at least to some extent. Estimates vary as to exactly how much carbon dioxide could be removed this way, but it’s clear that it’s enough to make a difference. And that’s good, because the latest assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) showed that even complete abandonment of fossil fuels by 2100 might not be enough to keep global warming within the oft-cited 2-degree target. (That means keeping the globally-averaged temperature within 2 degrees Celsius of its natural value.) Here at WHRC we’ve pointed out many times that two degrees might not be the best target, but it’s the most widely discussed one, and meeting it is certainly better than not meeting it. Large-scale restoration of the biosphere could help meet this and other climate-change mitigation goals.
If this is so great, why aren’t we doing it more aggressively? The main barrier is that economies place a higher value on other uses of land. A landowner can make more money farming, for example, than by devoting land to forest, even though the forest might have more value to humanity as a whole. Mechanisms like the United Nations’ “Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation,” known as REDD+, seek to address this market failure by paying landowners to preserve existing forests. It’s encouraging that the final terms of REDD+ were worked out this month in Bonn after 10 years of negotiation. But REDD+ is a relatively small-scale program, and as the name suggests, it’s primary focus is to halt—not reverse—deforestation.
So we have a long way to go. Here at WHRC, we’re working both to improve understanding of “nature’s solution to climate change,” and to bring this important tool to the attention of national and international policymakers. I spent last week in London meeting with others working along these lines, and it’s encouraging to see momentum growing around this under-appreciated idea.
The Arctic Council is the leading intergovernmental forum for addressing issues related to the arctic region. Its members include representatives from all eight countries with territories above the Arctic Circle (Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, the Russian Federation, and the United States), six Permanent Participants, representing indigenous arctic communities, and several observer nations, including China, India, Germany, and Singapore.
The Council is focused on sustainable development, the environment and scientific cooperation. The chairmanship of the Arctic Council is rotated among member countries and this year the US took the helm. Led by Secretary of State John Kerry, the US leadership theme of “One Arctic: Shared Opportunities” initiated work to “protect the marine environment, conserve Arctic biodiversity, improve conditions in arctic communities and address the rapidly changing climate in the Arctic.”
In advance of US leadership, Arctic 21 was formed as a coalition of US government officials, representatives from conservation groups and scientists to provide information and support for the Council. Dr. Max Holmes is the WHRC liaison to Arctic 21. In this role, Dr. Holmes along with Drs. Sue Natali and Scott Goetz met with officials at the US Department of State as well as with Senate and House staffers and presented WHRC findings related to climate feedbacks due to permafrost thaw in the Arctic. The group made the case that emissions from permafrost thaw need to be considered as emission targets are being negotiated domestically and internationally.
Permafrost contains twice as much carbon as the atmosphere, and as the Earth warms permafrost thaws, releasing carbon dioxide and methane to the atmosphere, which exacerbates an already warming climate. Yet, scientists do not know the amount and rate of carbon release from thawing permafrost, which could push the Earth well past the target to keep the warming below 2 degrees Celsius. Drs. Holmes, Natali and Goetz recommend a large-scale effort to establish permafrost thaw monitoring networks, advance international collaboration and technology application, and broadly communicate the threat posed by permafrost thaw to policy makers and the general public to advance emissions reductions policies more rapidly.
Paulo Brando, who joined the staff this month as an assistant scientist, is no stranger to WHRC. While an undergraduate at McGill University he read a WHRC paper that changed the way he looked at conservation. The paper considered factors beyond the physical boundaries of conserved lands to include the complex social, cultural and economic realities that affect the land. The paper was the first he had seen that looked at deforestation within the broader context of development, pointing out that deforestation is often a symptom of many other realities that must be considered for conservation to be successful.
He was hooked. He wrote a series of letters to WHRC and ultimately landed a position working on the dry-down experiments in WHRC’s southeastern Amazon field station, Tanguro Ranch, from 2003 to 2006. There he worked with WHRC researchers as they began to develop the concept that was to become REDD, and he learned to think beyond hectare-scale conservation issues. He went on to earn a Ph.D. in Interdisciplinary Ecology from the University of Florida in 2010, all the while working with WHRC and our Brazilian partner, Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM).
Much of Dr. Brando’s work can be called “disturbance ecology,” in that he and fellow researchers seek to identify how much is too much. He uses field manipulation experiments, statistical and dynamic models and remote sensing techniques to discover the limits of Amazonian forests. He has been involved in the multi-year fire and drought experiments in the Amazon, including one reported in the widely acknowledged PNAS publication which demonstrated that fire and drought could well push Amazonian forests beyond the tipping point.
Ultimately, Dr. Brando believes that the solutions to environmental degradation in the Amazon lie in the identification of the causes. He and colleagues at WHRC and IPAM provide the scientific data to Brazilian policymakers who can push environmental policy forward. A native of Brazil, he laughs and says, “I had to go abroad to really see the Amazon.”
Dr. Brando will continue his work with IPAM and with WHRC scientists Michael Coe and Marcia Macedo at Tanguro Ranch.
WHRC in the News, Grants, and Publications
WHRC in the News
WHRC’s Projet Equateur program took part in the celebrations for World Environment Day of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in Mbandaka, Democratic Republic of the Congo. The festivities included demonstrations on low-cost technologies to reduce environmental impacts, a conference and theatrical and film presentations.
Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported on Assistant Scientist Susan Natali‘s presentation on the irreversible processes and changes to the climate system arising from the cryosphere. Dr. Natali spoke at an event entitled “Science-based Urgency and Ambition” at the Bonn Climate Change Conference on June 9. The conference is the technical meeting in advance of the December COP 21 meeting in Paris. The AFP post was picked up by nearly 300 local or specialized media outlets around the world.
Senior Scientist I. Foster Brown was honored by the Interim Governor of Pando, Bolivia, for his work setting up and maintaining an early warning system for flooding that allowed timely evacuation of Pando residents in advance of recent flooding.
The environmental website Mongabay.com reported on Senior Scientist Josef Kellndorfer‘s vegetation height maps of the tropics.
Research Assistant Seth Spawn was awarded a National Geographic Young Explorer’s grant to study methane emissions from the Kolyma River floodplain in Siberia. This work is part of a larger effort to predict the timing and magnitude of methane emissions and their role in climate change.
Climate change is transforming landscapes and causing a shift in terrestrial carbon storage. A recent paper co-authored by Assistant Scientist Wayne Walker examined the northward expansion of mangroves into the salt marshes of Florida. The paper found, as the title suggests, “Mangrove range expansion rapidly increases coastal wetland carbon storage.” The results are important as they provide insights into how mangrove expansion could impact carbon storage in similar ecosystems worldwide where mangrove ranges are expanding poleward.
Hummingbirds live right at the limits of thermal and energenic constraints and, like canaries indicating carbon monoxide levels in coalmines, hummingbirds are indicators of a changing climate. A recent paper, co-authored by Senior Scientist Scott Goetz, Research Associate Tina Cormier and Research Assistant Kevin Guay, entitled, “Citizen-science data provides new insights into annual and seasonal variation in migration patterns,” examined hummingbird migration patterns across North America. These patterns are now being analyzed in the context of environmental constraints under climate change.
Fires, which are expected to be more frequent in boreal forests in response to a changing climate, will significantly impact the forest carbon balance. It is urgent that we understand the processes at work in order to identify a climate- and fire-smart management strategy. A new paper co-authored by Postdoctoral Fellow Brendan Rogers entitled, “Daily burned area and carbon emissions from boreal fires in Alaska,” uses remote sensing data to map carbon emissions from boreal fires and better understand what controls their spatial patterns.
Woods Hole Research Center is an independent research institution where scientists investigate the causes and effects of climate change to identify and implement opportunities for conservation, restoration, and economic development around the globe.