Monthly Newsletter – March 2015

Monthly Newsletter of WHRC

Dr. Philip DuffyA Case Where Change is Not Good

Dr. Philip Duffy, President & Executive Director

My recent travels between Falmouth and California highlight very vividly that both regions are experiencing weather patterns that are unprecedented, prolonged, and problematical—and possibly related to climate change. Falmouth, of course, is in the grip of a modern-day ice age, while California has its second consecutive winter of record warmth and record-low precipitation.

Both of these weather patterns have serious societal consequences. Our local friends need no reminder of the inconvenience, expense, and danger associated with record snow and unusual cold. And when the thaw comes—late July, I would estimate—we may be treated to flooding and an ocean of mud. In California, the warmth and dryness are a double-whammy for the water supply. The implications of low precipitation are obvious. Record warmth means that precipitation comes mainly as rain, and the snowpack—an important source of water for the summer dry season—is even smaller than it otherwise would be. When summer arrives, the winter’s warmth and dryness will increase fire risk, and water scarcity will affect both agricultural and urban users.

Whether or not these particular examples of extreme weather are in fact associated with climate change, there’s no doubt that some forms of extreme weather are. These connections illustrate that climate change involves much more than gradual warming. They also illustrate the silliness of oft-repeated arguments that the occurrence of cold or snow disproves the reality of climate change, or that climate change is beneficial. Extreme weather is disruptive, expensive, and dangerous. Not only that, but any major change in climate is a problem, not because the new climate is necessarily “worse,” but because human systems—everything from agriculture to snow removal—are very finely tuned to the old one. This is one case where “change is not good,” and the unprecedented rate of human-caused climate change is especially not good.

Who could have guessed that climate change might cause extreme snow in Massachusetts or a year-long dry season in California? These examples illustrate why the work we do at WHRC to understand climate change and its consequences, and to slow its progress, is so important. Thanks for your continued support.

Aerial view of the right bank of the Acre River in downtown Rio Branco, Acre, Brazil. SECOM/AC. 4 March 2015.

The New Normal

In Rio Branco, Brazil, the Acre River, which winds through Brazil, Bolivia and Peru, breached its banks for the seventh consecutive year, flooding the region. This year, the waters surpassed the high water mark set in 2012, making the flood of 2015 the highest in recorded history. Flooding is not uncommon in this region, but the intensity and frequency of these floods is unusual for a region accustomed to severe floods occurring only once every few decades.

The flooding displaced nearly 10,000 people and paralyzed three of the four bridges crossing the Acre River. There is an eight-inch fissure in the last remaining bridge, perpendicular to traffic. If the fissure increases, this bridge will be impassable as well. The water supply for the city of Rio Branco is nearly submerged, threatening the health of residents. In the upriver cities of Epitaciolandia and Brasileia along the Brazil-Bolivia border, Internet, land-lines, and cell communication have been inoperable for more than a week.

It is premature to evaluate the economic costs of the flooding this year, but the flood of 2012 generated damages of $100 million in Rio Branco, and last year’s flooding of the Madeira River was a $300 million disaster.

WHRC Senior Scientist Foster Brown has lived and worked in Acre for more than 20 years. After the waters receded from 18.40 meters to 18.23 meters he recounted a colleague who said, “What a relief, only 18.23 meters!” At that moment, Dr. Brown had a revelation. “I realized how quickly we adapt to changing norms. If someone had told me a week ago that we would feel relieved with a river level of 18.23 meters, 60 centimeters above the highest recorded flood, I would have said they were crazy.”

Crazy or not, Dr. Brown hopes that this event will mark a turning point in public attitudes on climate change mitigation and adaptation. He is encouraged by local politicians who, for the first time, are talking about moving urban centers to higher ground. One even confessed to reading Dr. Brown’s bi-weekly newspaper articles on climate change and resilience.

For Dr. Brown, “The new normal has arrived in dramatic fashion in this part of southwestern Amazonia. Let’s see if we can get a change in societal direction as a result.”

Dr. Christopher Schwalm Joins WHRC

Associate Scientist Christopher Schwalm joined WHRC in January, and it is difficult to say which project or scientist in particular drew him to the Center as the scope of his work touches upon so many WHRC projects. He is a modeler who uses remote sensing and is interested in the impacts of land use change on the global carbon cycle and how these changes influence climate and weather patterns and by extension the human systems, like agriculture, that are dependent upon them. If pushed, Dr. Schwalm aligns himself most closely with Dr. Houghton’s global carbon work, because changes in terrestrial carbon stocks are the starting point for all of his work.

Dr. Schwalm thinks a lot about the uncertainties inherent in current extreme weather models. He speaks of “plausible climate futures,” and the likelihood of more extreme extremes. For him, it is essential to think beyond the response of natural systems to these events, to the impacts of these changes on human vitality due to resource scarcity, such as water availability or declining agricultural yields. He hopes to work through the uncertainties in current climate models to create more accurate risk and vulnerability assessments so that the worst outcomes can be avoided.

Dr. Schwalm did not always envision a career in science. He began his undergraduate studies with an eye toward the diplomatic service. He has a dual degree in German and Political Science, but after graduating, he realized that “studying for the diplomatic corps was much more interesting than the actual work of the diplomatic corps.” He had always been interested in the environment and how things work, and so he pursued a master’s degree in forestry and then a Ph.D. in environmental sciences. He worked for a time as a policy analyst for the Department of Natural Resources, an experience that instilled in him the notion that science should drive policy, not vice versa. It should be no surprise that WHRC’s ranking as the number one climate change think-tank was a major draw for Dr. Schwalm. For him, “WHRC is the direct link between science and policy.”

Welcome to WHRC, Dr. Schwalm.

WHRC in the News and Events

WHRC in the News

President Philip Duffy spoke about his leadership of WHRC in an article in The Cape Cod Times.

Dr. Michael Coe discussed the droughts in São Paulo and flooding in Amazonia in National Geographic online.

Dr. Max Holmes became a National Fellow of the Explorers Club, a professional society dedicated to the advancement of field research. He joins a group of scientific adventurers who “have distinguished themselves by directly contributing to scientific knowledge in the field of geographical exploration or allied sciences.”

Dr. Wayne Walker presented his work on the high carbon content of indigenous lands in Amazonia for colleagues at World Bank headquarters in Washington, DC.


Dr. Marcia Macedo and Dr. Michael Coe presented “Forests, Climate and Agriculture: A Planetary Balancing Act” at a dinner reception in Washington, DC for friends of the Center. Among the guests was climate action champion Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island.


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.