Monthly Newsletter – March 2017

Monthly Newsletter of WHRC


Dr. Philip DuffyDangerously dishonest

Dr. Philip Duffy, President & Executive Director

In his confirmation hearings and again on CNBC, EPA chief Scott Pruitt expressed doubt about the human role in climate change, indicating that more “review and analysis” is needed to better understand that role. That opinion contradicts not only an overwhelming consensus among climate scientists, but also the view of 195 governments that unanimously affirmed the findings of those scientists as expressed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Those same 195 countries also backed their words with action, by signing on to the Paris climate agreement and making strong commitments to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases.

So our EPA chief is either dangerously misinformed or dangerously dishonest when he seeks to cast doubt on the well-established human role in climate change. But more than that, Pruitt’s statements are at odds with his administration’s proposed budget, which drastically cuts funding for global change research. If those in the administration genuinely believe that we need more “review and analysis,” they should be increasing, not decreasing, funding for research that would provide the answers they say we need. So what’s really going on here?

It’s difficult to avoid concluding that the administration simply doesn’t want to hear the truth about the causes of climate change. Acknowledging the predominant human role in causing the problem would make it difficult to justify inaction. Continuing the phony “debate” about settled science postpones the conversation we should be having, about the best policies to protect present and future generations from the serious risks of climate change.

Ironically, some other folks argue against the need for more research, precisely because the human role in climate change is well established. If we know there’s a problem, why do we need more science research? Shouldn’t we just get on with implementing solutions? Of course, but recognizing a problem is not the same as knowing how to solve it. Critical policy-relevant questions remain unanswered:

  1. How much climate change can we live with? Climate policy goals like limiting global warming to 2º C are educated guesses about when the impacts of climate change will become intolerable. We need a better understanding of critical thresholds and tipping points, in order to design climate policies to avoid them. WHRC’s work on thawing permafrost, for example, aims to understand at what point the release of greenhouse gases from this source becomes unmanageable.
  2. How can we control climate change while simultaneously improving ecosystem health and human prosperity? WHRC’s work in the developing world seeks win-win solutions that work both for the environment and local economy. Success will involve good policies informed by exactly the sort of research that the US administration is trying not to fund.
  3. How can we prepare for the effects of climate change that we won’t be able to avoid? Adaptation measures can be very cost effective, but only if they are based on good information about what local manifestations of climate change will look like. This requires research into regional-scale climate change and its intersection with natural and human systems. A recently funded WHRC project will enhance resilience and improve management responses in the Southwestern Amazon.

Controlling climate change at an acceptable level—meaning without disastrous outcomes—will require science-based solutions. That can’t happen without policy-relevant research. Historically, the US government has spent far more on global change research than any other nation. If it is going to do less, the rest of us will need to do more. There’s nothing more important or more urgent.

Thanks as always for your interest and support.

Winter moths reduce forest ability to store carbon, study finds

Winter moths add to New England’s climate change impact by reducing tree growth and increasing tree death, according to a recent study by WHRC scientists and students in the Marine Biological Laboratory’s Semester in Environmental Science program.

Winter moths are an invasive species native to Europe. In New England, they’re seen on warm, wet nights in late fall as small white moths. In early spring they emerge as small, green caterpillars that defoliate local trees just after leaves emerge.

“Winter moths cause trees to grow slower because they have to put out a second crop of leaves,” said WHRC scientist Dr. Chris Neill, who worked with students Erin Gleeson, Nick Patel and Hannah Garcia. “These slower-growing trees became more vulnerable to the additional stress of the 2016 drought, and many died.”

That tree mortality, according to Dr. Neill, reduced the amount of carbon absorbed by Cape Cod forests.

The project combined new remote sensing technology with careful fieldwork.

WHRC Senior Geospatial Analyst Greg Fiske used a time series of MODIS remote sensing imagery within Google’s Earth Engine platform to identify areas on Cape Cod that were defoliated by winter moth caterpillars between 2000 and 2016.

Students Erin Gleeson (Rhodes College), Nick Patel (Swarthmore College) and Hannah Garcia (Trinity University) then compared areas on the ground that the remote sensing identified as having experienced high or low defoliation.

Gleeson found that tree growth declined in areas identified as defoliated from the satellite images but did not change in areas that were not defoliated. Patel measured tree rings from live and dead oak trees in Falmouth’s Town Forest and in Beebe Woods near WHRC. He found that tree growth was fairly steady but started to decline when winter moths arrived in Falmouth in high numbers in 2007. He found dying trees were already growing slower than surviving trees, indicating that the added stress of the 2016 drought likely finished them off.

Garcia compared tree growth rates with historical records of drought on Cape Cod. She found that in forests before winter moth invasion, or in forest without infestation, trees survived droughts very well. It was only in combination with winter moths that drought had a major effect.

Gleeson found that before winter moth infestation, Cape Cod forests were sequestering 5 metric tons of carbon per hectare annually. After the winter moths hit an area, that rate dropped to 3.5 metric tons per hectare per year.

“We produced a map of increasing and decreasing vegetation intensity for all the forests of Cape Cod and generated a series of random points to visit in the field,” said Mr. Fiske. “The field results validated the remote sensing data. And, conversely, the remote sensing data helped to streamline the research. Without access to Earth Engine or the freely available MODIS imagery archive, we would never have been able to do this without a lot of time and funding. The old methods of downloading a time series of satellite imagery and doing the computations in-house would just have been too costly.”

While winter moths have been with us on Cape Cod for about ten years, Neill said, but change may be on the horizon. Between 2005 and 2015, Joseph Elkington at the University of Massachusetts led a team that released a parasitic fly that has worked as a biological control elsewhere in the Northeast.. Those flies are now established at more than 20 sites in Massachusetts, including Falmouth.

Holdren lauds Obama for attention to science

WHRC’s Senior Advisor to the President Dr. John Holdren reflected last month on his time as President Obama’s top science advisor, telling a New York audience that the 44th president was driven to “put science back in its rightful place.”

Dr. Holdren was president of WHRC from 2005 to early 2009, when he was tapped to join the Obama Administration. He served as Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Co-Chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology until January 2017. Dr. Holdren returned to WHRC last month in a pro-bono advisory role.

Speaking at the Harvard Club on February 23, Dr. Holdren said that he initially assumed that his role as science advisor would involve explaining the fundamentals of science issues. Instead, he found that President Obama would get himself up to speed overnight and wanted to spend morning meetings discussing solutions—not background.

“He would read a briefing book at night, and in the morning he would have digested it and summarized it in a way that was better than the notes in the memo,” Dr. Holdren said.

Dr. Holdren expressed concern over the Trump Administration’s lack of attention to science and to evidence-based policymaking. He said that the federal government could take a big step backwards after the pro-science policies of President Obama. “I am very worried about that gap,” he said.

2017 Polaris students prepare for Alaska field work

The Polaris Project has been introducing budding scientists to arctic research since 2008, when a group of undergraduate students and faculty launched a research expedition to the Siberian Arctic. This year’s expedition will be to Alaska’s Yukon River Delta, where students will investigate how warming is impacting the region and how those changes might impact the global climate system.

The 2017 Polaris students come from colleges and universities in Arizona, Colorado, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Rhode Island and Puerto Rico. Next month, before going into the field, the students will gather for a three-day workshop at WHRC for orientation and field safety training. In July the team will establish a remote tent camp in the middle of Alaska’s Yukon River Delta, travelling by float plane and helicopter. During the two weeks in the Delta the students will carry out the field component of their research projects.

As a warmer climate causes permafrost to thaw, large amounts of carbon dioxide and methane are released into the atmosphere and have the potential to significantly exacerbate global warming. Widespread thaw is expected to occur in this century, but many uncertainties remain about the amount of emissions, the timing of their release and the precise effect on climate. The Polaris Project addresses these questions to both advance the scientific understanding of the fate of permafrost and to engage a broad audience about the role of the Arctic in the global climate system.

The Polaris faculty includes WHRC’s Max Holmes, Sue Natali, John Schade, Ludda Ludwig, former staff member Paul Mann from Northumbria University, UK, and Heidi Steltzer of Fort Lewis College in Colorado.

Following the trip to Alaska, the students will return to WHRC to analyze samples and data and present their preliminary results to the Woods Hole community. Later, many of the students will also present their work at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in San Francisco.

According to the Max Holmes, WHRC’s Deputy Director and founder of the Polaris Project, “We are thrilled with the team we’ve assembled for the 2017 Polaris Project and are energized by the challenges of shifting the annual expedition to a critical new environment, the Yukon River Delta in Alaska. Not only does the Delta contain a vast amount of carbon in its permafrost, but the permafrost may be particularly vulnerable given its relatively warm temperature and the apparently increasing prevalence of wildfire in the region.”

‘500 Women Scientists’ takes hold in Woods Hole

The first meeting of the Woods Hole chapter (or pod) of 500 Women Scientists was held at WHRC on International Women’s Day. WHRC’s Dr. Susan Natali convened the meeting attended by some 60 scientists, educators and other women affiliated with science.

500 Women Scientists was established immediately after the November 2016 election as a grassroots organization to speak up for science and for women. To date, nearly 17,000 women have pledged “to build a more inclusive society and scientific enterprise.” Local pods have sprung up in cities and towns across the US and around the world and now exist in 109 countries from Afghanistan to Wales.

Participants at the first meeting included women of varying career stages from scientific institutions and schools across the Cape, Islands, and southeastern Massachusetts. They were marine biologists, geneticists, physicists, climate scientists, teachers, and others, all of whom are concerned about the state of science in the current political climate. Over the course of the evening, the women expressed interest in communicating their work to a broad audience, highlighting the importance of scientific evidence and truth, mentoring future scientists, and encouraging women to seek scientific leadership positions.

The mission of the Woods Hole pod is “to promote a diverse and inclusive scientific community that brings progressive science-based solutions to local and global challenges. We seek to empower women to grow to their full potential in science; increase scientific literacy through public engagement; and advocate for science and equality.” Membership is open to “women who work in fields of science, technology, engineering, and math, including STEM educators and administrators. Our members include STEM women from Woods Hole, the Islands, the Cape and surrounding areas.”

Information on membership in 500 Women Scientists / Woods Hole Pod is available at:

Now, more than ever, science needs leaders

WHRC scientist Sue Natali has been selected – along with 77 female scientists from around the world – to take part in the Homeward Bound leadership program. Please support her participation:

WHRC in the news

Obama Science Adviser Rejoins Climate-Change Think Tank. The Associated Press covered the announcement of John Holdren’s return to WHRC and his appointment as senior adviser to the president.24 February.

Many tree species in eastern US may be unable to adapt to changing climate, study findsMongabay featured Brendan Rogers’ recent paper on the impact of climate change on eastern tree species. The article included photos by WHRC alumnus Patrick Jantz. 6 March.

Local Women Scientists Getting Organized. WCAI, the Cape and Islands NPR station, interviewed WHRC scientists Sue Natali and Johanne Pelletier about the first 500 Women Scientists / Woods Hole meeting at WHRC. 6 March.

Climate Change Talk Zeroes in on Shifting Policies ran in the Vineyard Gazette about a lecture in Vineyard Haven given by WHRC’s Phil Duffy and others. 8 March.

Siberia permafrost: Over 7,000 methane-filled bubbles ‘ready to explode’ discovered in Arctic. A story in International Business Times quoted WHRC’s Max Holmes on scientists’ grave concern about thawing permafrost. 20 March.

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.