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From the President
Dr. Philip Duffy, President & Executive Director
This week we noted a sad milestone – the first time that the global atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration exceeded 400 parts per million (ppm). It had previously hit this mark at individual stations, including the famed observatory at Mauna Loa, Hawaii. The figure of 400 ppm has no particular physical significance, but it is symbolic of humanity’s continued failure to control climate change. To put this figure in perspective, in 1850 the concentration was about 280 ppm, its “preindustrial” value. To limit global warming to 2oC, a widely cited but probably inadequate policy goal, we must limit atmospheric CO2 to no more than about 450 ppm. It is unlikely, however, that we’ll stop emitting CO2 soon enough to do that; at the current rate that humans are adding CO2 to the atmosphere, it would take only 20 or 25 more years to surpass that limit.
This is why the work WHRC is doing to develop and implement ways to remove CO2 from the atmosphere is so important. We simply won’t be able to limit climate change to a tolerable level without it. As I’ve mentioned before, the Center – in partnership with policy and aid organizations – is working to both remove CO2 from the atmosphere via reforestation, and to objectively measure progress in doing this using data from satellites.
While our work has never been more necessary, more visible, or more scientifically avant-garde, it has also never been more difficult to support. For our first 31 years, WHRC successfully supported itself primarily via government research grants. Like all institutions that engage in scientific research, however, we are pressured by the increasing difficulty of obtaining these grants, and their shrinking size. The National Science Foundation’s Division of Environmental Biology, for example, reports that the average success rate for grant applications decreased from 17% in 2007 to 7.6% in 2015. Compounding this, the average amount of principal investigator time funded by successful proposals decreased from 1.7 months in 2002 to 0.8 months in 2014 (for NSF as a whole). With these statistics, an average scientist would have to write 180 proposals to fund him/herself for 11 months, which is what we ask our scientists to do every year. (In the 12th month they are supported by WHRC for the purpose of writing proposals.) If you’re asking yourself how any human being could write 180 proposals in a year, much less in a month, you understand why we need to transition to a long-term funding model that relies less on scientist-driven government research funding.
We are gratified by increasing interest in our work on the part of philanthropic foundations, but most of these funders require us to contribute matching funds, typically 30-40% of the amount they provide. We are rapidly approaching the point of being unable to accept further foundation funding because, quite literally, we can’t afford to take the money! Needless to say, this is something I would hate to have to do. Contributions from individual donors, therefore, allow us to accept additional foundation support, and the benefit of these donations is immediately multiplied.
For these reasons and others, we rely increasingly on the support of our loyal friends and followers. This support is especially important to us because, unlike research universities, we are not funded by student tuition, and we don’t have a “built-in” base of alums. Because we are a small organization, every contribution makes a difference to us. If you value our work, please consider helping to continue it.
As always, thanks for your interest and support.
The Brazil Summer Policy Lab
At the end of June, WHRC and Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) will host an orientation workshop to prepare University of Chicago students for environmental policy work in Brazil. The school’s International Innovation Corps (IIC) has joined forces with WHRC, MBL and WHRC’s sister institution, Instituto de Pesquisa Ambiental da Amazônia (IPAM), to provide a graduate-level opportunity, the IIC Brazil Summer Policy Lab, to address the most pressing issues of Brazil’s policies surrounding biodiversity conservation.
The graduate students will collaborate with scientists Christopher Neill and Linda Deegan from MBL, as well as WHRC’s Michael Coe, Marcia Macedo, and Paulo Brando. They will spend ten weeks in Brazil to identify important policy questions, apply data from ongoing field experiments, and evaluate conservation and biodiversity policy options for the Brazilian Amazon.
The students will investigate and analyze opportunities to preserve and expand protected areas in the Amazon, policies for implementation of Brazil’s Forest Code, the importance of forests in indigenous and other protected areas for biodiversity and global climate, and policies to diminish forest fires and their consequences.
“This is a novel and exciting way to engage students – who have the unique combination of international experience and analytical skills in public policy – with the central science questions of how to conserve and manage Amazon biodiversity,” said Dr. Neill. “It will directly connect the science that WHRC, IPAM and MBL conduct on Amazon forest dynamics, land use change, agriculture and water quality at the Tanguro Ranch research station in Mato Grosso, with opportunities to create policies that promote forest conservation.”
IPAM wins Google Impact Challenge
WHRC’s long-standing partner in Brazil, IPAM, has been recognized by the Google Impact Challenge and awarded $430,000 for its platform to help indigenous communities adapt to climate change.
WHRC’s Amazon Program takes part in the IPAM project, by interpreting climate data and assessing climate risks and conservation opportunities, thus providing indigenous people with an understanding of their vulnerability to climate extremes, flood and drought. “It is gratifying to be a part of this wonderful project,” said Senior Scientist Michael Coe.
Outlook for Brazil’s environment during the ‘circus of impeachment’
A recent op-ed in Grist observes that, despite the hornet’s nest of corruption, illegalities and impeachment within Brazil’s government, Brazil has “in recent years occupied a position of critical global leadership on climate change.”
The authors, IPAM director André Guimarães and Stephan Schwartzman, senior director of tropical forest policy at Environmental Defense Fund, note positive actions in Brazil, such as an 80 percent reduction in deforestation over the last decade, and the adoption last December of a more robust emissions reduction commitment than many developing countries.
Even as these commitments are at risk in the current turmoil of impeachment, three Amazon states – Acre, Pará and Mato Grosso – are moving ahead with their own programs to curb deforestation and encourage sustainable landscapes.
Speaking of climate change…
The average workday finds WHRC scientists examining, interpreting and quantifying remotely-sensed and field data in the study of rivers, arctic ecosystems, boreal and tropical forests across the globe, because all of these ecosystems – and changes in them over time – have a strong influence on climate.
On a recent afternoon, however, several scientists gathered to discuss a different topic: the arguments of those who question the veracity of human-induced climate change. Being scientists, they came up with a list of responses to these contrarian claims, but they also noted that “it can be difficult to distinguish between legitimate data and cherry-picked data, even for scientists.” They found that “cherry-picked data” – data from a specific time and/or place – can be used to support the arguments of climate change deniers. They noted, however, that “it is critical to consider climate as an average over a period of time, and to consider climate change as a shift in this average at the global scale.”
As one WHRC scientist has stated before, “We know the radiative properties of greenhouse gases. We know their concentrations are increasing in the atmosphere as a result of human activity. And we know the Earth’s surface temperature is increasing. If you don’t want to believe that climate is changing, you have two problems. First, why aren’t the laws of physics that explain climate change working? And, second, what is responsible for the increasing temperatures?”
Into the woods: Field notes from Saskatchewan
During most of June, WHRC Assistant Scientist Brendan Rogers has been leading a team of researchers in northern Saskatchewan to assess the carbon stocks of normally forested landscapes where fires burned in 2015 – the third biggest fire year since 1965. The team is studying the amount of carbon being emitted by fire and eventually plans to quantify carbon emissions from fire for all of boreal North America. The work is part of a NASA-funded project within the long-term Arctic Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE) campaign.
Fires combust soil and vegetation, emitting carbon to the atmosphere that is eventually re-sequestered on land. Under equilibrium conditions, there is a balance between carbon source and sink. However, under a warming climate, fires are becoming more frequent and severe.
Dr. Rogers and his team have been sampling areas where the forest has re-burned in as short a time as 9 years, which is historically a very rare burn frequency for boreal forests in Canada and Alaska. He and his team note that in many of these young forests, fires are destroying nearly all of the soil organic layers, leaving only mineral soil and exposed rock. Dr. Rogers notes that “the mechanics of these re-burns are fascinating, because in many cases the young trees cannot maintain the fire by themselves, but the large quantities dead and downed wood from previous fires are able to fuel another.”
Each day the team hikes to specific plots to measure trees and sample the soil. In a blog of their activities, Dr. Sander Veraverbeke of the University of California, Irvine, writes:
Fires in the boreal forest emit large amounts of carbon dioxide, the most important greenhouse gas. Exactly how much they emit is a difficult question to answer. Over many decades these forests have piled up thick layers of downed needles and other organic material, resulting in thick carbon-rich soils. When a fire spreads through the forest, it emits carbon mostly from these soil layers and less from the live trees. The real question is: how deep do these fires burn into the soils? There is a lot a variability depending on which forest type is burning and how hot it burns.
The team also studied harvested areas that have recently burned. According to WHRC’s Kylen Solvik:
We are very interested in the interactions between fires and logging. We are comparing burned forests that grew back after harvest to those that grew back after a previous forest fire. We believe there could be differences between the two in burn severity and the amount of carbon released by the fire. When a plot is harvested for lumber, the logs are removed but the soil remains. This is the opposite of burned areas, where fire burns into the soils but a lot of the trees remain standing, albeit charred. To study these differences, we are searching for areas of burn and harvest origin that are about the same age. We have seen some very young burned sites, many under 10 years old. This is surprising since forests in boreal regions typically burn when they are 50 to 100 years old. We were shocked to find a burned plot that had been harvested only a year or two earlier. Even without any significant trees or shrubs to carry the flames, the soil was able to sustain the fire.
The CBC, which runs the popular documentary series, The Nature of Things has been captivated by the fire study and sent a film crew to one of the field sites. With the aid of cameras mounted on drones, the crew spent a day with the researchers, interviewing and filming their work in the forest.
A documentary planned for release next year will include a portion on forests following severe fires and the work being done by the ABoVE researchers.
Oslo REDD Exchange 2016
This month, WHRC’s Glenn Bush, Wayne Walker, and Ken Creighton attended the Oslo REDD Exchange conference. US Secretary of State John Kerry addressed the meeting on June 15 – a high-level appearance for the relatively small conference on forests and climate.
Secretary Kerry spoke about the threats from climate change to global security and stressed the importance of forests in fighting climate change. He also signed a joint statement with Norway on a shared commitment to forest conservation and management for curbing greenhouse gas emissions.
WHRC’s Scott Goetz appointed to National Academies panel
WHRC Deputy Director and Senior Scientist Scott Goetz has been appointed to the Ecosystems Panel (Marine and Terrestrial Ecosystems and Natural Resource Management) for the Decadal Survey for Earth Science and Applications from Space.
The survey is spearheaded by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, and the ensuing report will “generate recommendations from the environ-mental monitoring and Earth science and applications communities for an integrated and sustainable approach to the conduct of the US government’s civilian space-based Earth-system science programs.”
The meetings have already begun and will continue over the next 30 months to identify science priorities and the emergence of new technologies. The appointment represents another honor – and assignment – for Dr. Goetz.
WHRC in the news, recent publications, events
WHRC in the news
Congress shouldn’t legislate fact, especially when its wood energy facts are wrong, an op-ed by WHRC President Philip Duffy on pending Congressional legislation that could cause deforestation and damage to the climate, appeared in The Bangor (ME) Daily News.
30 years ago scientists warned Congress on global warming. The Washington Post quotes WHRC Founder George M. Woodwell, who testified decades ago on global warming before Congress. “We knew in the ‘70s what the problem was,” he said.
Alaska’s huge climate mystery – and its global consequences. A story about the immense amount of carbon stored in permafrost and projections for its future ran in The Washington Post and quoted Senior Scientist Max Holmes on permafrost thaw.
Canada’s tundra is turning green – and its Boreal forest brown – NASA study finds. An article in Canada’s National Post about a recent NASA study quotes Deputy Director and Senior Scientist Scott Goetz on the “clear distinction” between the changes in the tundra and boreal regions of Canada and Alaska.
Dry conditions of thawing arctic permafrost cause increased carbon emissions – press release for a Nature Climate Change paper co-authored by WHRC Associate Scientist Susan Natali, titled “Potential carbon emissions dominated by carbon dioxide from thawed permafrost soils.”
A summer film series will include: Years of Living Dangerously on Thursday, July 14 at 5:30 pm; Dam Nation on Thursday, August 11 at 5:30 pm; and A Fierce Green Fire on Saturday, September 10 at 4:30 pm. Learn more or rsvp by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.