Monthly Newsletter – May 2015

Monthly Newsletter of WHRC

Dr. Philip DuffyCan We Afford Not to Address Climate Change?

Dr. Philip Duffy, President & Executive Director

Opponents of environmental protection argue that we ‘can’t afford’ to safeguard our health and that of the planet we live and depend on. The latest example involves the EPA’s proposed regulation of existing coal-fired power plants, which a member of Congress (from a coalproducing state) recently claimed would result in “electricity rate increases, reduced electrical reliability and other harmful effects.”

It seems so logical that regulation would increase costs that few people question the idea. But history shows that it’s often not true. For one thing, it’s wrong to focus narrowly on the purchase price of automobiles, electricity, or whatever is being regulated. Pollution has real costs in terms of damage to the environment and to human health. (Because of this, polluting is a way of shifting costs onto others). For example, the Clean Air coalition estimated that fine particle pollution from existing coal plants caused nearly 13,200 deaths in 2010, plus 9,700 hospitalizations and more than 20,000 heart attacks, with a total monetized value for these adverse health impacts exceeding $100 billion per year. (I should add that these numbers used to be much higher but have been reduced by successful regulation of coal plants.)

Ref-v-time-NRDCBut even if we focus exclusively on purchase prices, regulation can have surprisingly positive impacts. Refrigerators provide an interesting example. The graph below, based on one shown by California Energy Commissioner Art Rosenfeld, shows that after California and the federal government began to regulate refrigerator energy use in the 1970s, refrigerator prices stopped climbing and began a steady decline, eventually falling by nearly two-thirds. Energy consumption also fell, by about the same percentage, and all the while refrigerators continued to get larger.

How can this be? I suspect that by the 1970s refrigerator designs had become out-of-date, but manufacturers had no incentive to change them because the products were profitable. The requirement to reduce energy consumption stimulated innovation, and refrigerators became much more efficient, much cheaper, and larger, all at the same time. Manufacturers could have made this happen sooner, but needed a nudge to do it.

The lessons to draw from this is that it’s wrong to assume that market forces always produce optimal results, and wrong to underestimate the power of innovation. What happened in the case of refrigerators will probably happen again and again as we move to address climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Instead of worrying about whether we can afford to address climate change, the real question is how can we afford not to?

Damn Dams: A choking hazard for Amazonia

AmazonBasin_newsletterA new report by WHRC scientists Marcia Macedo and Leandro Castello highlights hydroelectric dam projects in the Amazon as a key threat. The report, commissioned by the Living Amazon Initiative of the World Wildlife Fund, entitled, “State of the Amazon: Freshwater Connectivity and Ecosystem Health” reviews the current state of watershed ecosystem health and identifies key threats and opportunities for conservation across Amazonia. The report finds that planned hydroelectric dam projects will constrict every subwatershed and undermine the health of the entire Amazonian watershed.

The health of the Amazon watershed depends on annual flood cycles, which cause rivers to swell by as much as 20 meters each year. As river water overflows into the floodplains, rivers become connected to surrounding forests. This annual flood pulse serves as a giant mixing bowl, transferring vital sediments and nutrients and providing a highway for fish migration. Dam projects sever these essential connections, increasingly fragmenting individual subwatersheds and undermining the health of the whole Amazon system.

Dams are not the only threat to watershed health. The region continues to be at risk from deforestation, mining and hydrocarbon extraction, and climate changes, all of which may change the annual flood pulse and river connectivity. Economic pursuits tend to increase energy demand, which drives the construction of more hydroelectric dams in the region. But these cumulative impacts are often ignored in environmental policies governing dam construction. Environmental impact assessments only consider the effects of individual projects, making it virtually impossible to achieve integrated watershed management.

The Amazon Basin spans seven nations, which is perhaps the biggest challenge to holistic watershed management. Healthy river systems depend on connectivity and do not respect political boundaries. In many cases, economic development activities in one country can incur environmental costs in another, yet there is not an overarching policy framework to help coordinate management activities across country boundaries. Developing such a multinational framework is both the biggest challenge and the biggest opportunity for conserving Amazon freshwater ecosystems and supporting the productive fisheries and human populations that depend on them.

Associate Scientist Dr. Jonathan Sanderman

Dr Sanderman collecting soil water samples from an old growth redwood forest.

Soil scientist Dr. Jonathan Sanderman has joined the WHRC research staff from Australia’s national science agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), where he worked to identify carbon smart agricultural techniques.

Soils are an often-overlooked yet very important component of the global carbon system. Soils store four times as much carbon as the atmosphere, and the natural exchange of carbon between soils and the atmosphere represents almost ten times as much carbon than is emitted by human activities. That’s a lot of carbon at risk, but soils also have an immense capacity to store carbon, which make them an important component in climate change mitigation strategies.

Despite all this, very little is known about the mechanisms for soil carbon release and storage. Decomposition of plant litter should occur quickly as seen in a backyard compost pile, yet a lot of carbon can end up being held in soils for millennia. Dr. Sanderman is working to understand the soil environmental conditions and processes, which can lead to either quick carbon emission or long-term carbon sequestration.

Much of his work in Australia focused on agriculture, as the evolution of industrial agriculture has led to a roughly 50% loss of soil carbon from agricultural land. Cultivation accelerates decomposition and erosion, which increases carbon emissions and can lead to “dust bowl” conditions. Recouping even a fraction of this lost carbon would be a win for soil health and a win for climate mitigation.

Dr. Sanderman is working to identify strategies to rebuild carbon in soils, through methods such as no-till agriculture, increasing crop diversity, application of organic amendments and improved grazing management. Dr. Sanderman is no stranger to Woods Hole, having been an undergraduate student at the Marine Biological Laboratory where he worked on the Global Change Ecosystem manipulation experiment. It was there that he became hooked on environmental science, which led to his successful pursuit of a Ph.D. from the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at the University of California, Berkeley.

He is thrilled to be working with WHRC, whose history of demonstrating the potential of the biosphere to mitigate climate change continues to inspire him. He is also looking forward to surfing at the Cape Cod at the National Seashore.

Dr. Sanderman recommends that everyone can be a part of the carbon soil solution through composting and creating worm bins. Here are some composting basics from the EPA: recycle/composting-home and make your own worm bin from Wikihow: Make-a-Worm-Compost-System.

WHRC in the News, Grants, Publications, Recent Events

WHRC in the News

WHRC’s Glen Bush discusses LandSat imagery of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in a NASA homepage article “Mapping Forest Loss with LandSat.”

This month, Drs. Johanne Pelletier and Patrick Jantz facilitated a four-day workshop on Open Source Land Cover Change Mapping & GHG Uncertainty Estimation and Forest Connectivity-Carbon Co-benefits Mapping hosted by the Regional Centre for Mapping of Resources for Development (RCMRD) in Nairobi, Kenya.  The (RCMRD) is an inter-governmental organization with 20 Contracting Member States in the Eastern and Southern Africa Regions; Botswana, Burundi, Comoros, Ethiopia, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Mauritius, Namibia, Rwanda, Seychelles, Somali, South Africa, South Sudan, Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

In April, Senior Scientist I. Foster Brown facilitated a tri-national meeting to quantify the damages and costs of the most recent flooding in the Acre River Basin in Brazil.  Since 2006, Dr. Brown has been engaged in informal meetings of representatives of civil defense in southwestern Amazonia, typically related to either flooding or droughts.  The Acre River Basin is one of the few tri-national sub-basins in the Amazon, and flooding there has become nearly a yearly affair.


Assistant Scientist Marcia Macedo has been awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to study the sustainability of riparian forests in Amazonia. Riparian forests buffer streams and can reduce the potential negative effects of forest clearing. This project will investigate how deforestation, cropland expansion and intensification, and increased fertilizer use influence the structure and sustainability of riparian forests, and ultimately affect their capacity to keep nutrient runoff from reaching streams.

Research Assistant Seth Spawn was awarded a grant from The Explorers Club to study methane emissions along the Kolyma River in Siberia. Methane is released along with carbon dioxide when arctic permafrost thaws and it is 25 times more powerful as a driver of climate change. The Explorers Club is an international multidisciplinary professional society dedicated to the advancement of field research and the ideal that it is vital to preserve the instinct to explore.


A new paper co-authored by Senior Scientist Richard A. Houghton, entitled “Audit of the global carbon budget: estimate errors and their impact on uptake uncertainty,” confirms that as carbon emissions have climbed, so has the land and ocean’s capacity to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere: roughly 50% of all CO2 emissions have been absorbed each year since the 1960s, even though global emissions have increased greatly during that time.  The behavior of all CO2 “sinks” including the atmosphere, oceans and land have been poorly understood in part due to measurement and estimate errors.  This paper rates the levels of uncertainty in each component of the global carbon cycle and allows scientists and policy makers to weigh information so that higher certainty calculations will bring more to bear on policy decisions than less certain calculations.

A new report by WHRC scientists Marcia Macedo and Leandro Castello finds that planned hydroelectric dam projects will limit the free flow of water in every sub-watershed and undermine the health of the whole Amazonian system.  The work was commissioned by the Living Amazon Initiative of the World Wildlife Fund to report on the “State of the Amazon: Freshwater Connectivity and Ecosystem Health.” The publication reviews the current state of watershed ecosystem health and identifies key threats and opportunities for conservation across Amazonia.

Postdoctoral Fellow Johanne Pelletier published an article in Climatic Change, which, as the title suggests, covers the sensitive issue of “Addressing uncertainty upstream or downstream of accounting for emissions reductions from deforestation and forest degradation”. This paper shows that the costs of reducing uncertainty by investing in national forest monitoring systems for REDD+ is low compared to the potential benefits from carbon payments.

More old carbon is respired from permafrost when it is warmed and dried according to a new study co-authored by Assistant Scientist Susan Natali and Associate Scientist John Schade published in Journal of Geophysical Research Biogeosciences. The study also finds that when permafrost thaws and soils become saturated, there is an increase in emissions of methane, which is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. While temperature is a primary driver of permafrost thaw, the amount and form of carbon released, and thus the global warming impact of permafrost thaw, depends on soil moisture.

Senior Scientist Scott Goetz published a paper in Forest Ecology and Management, which developed a much-needed relationship between shrub attributes, such as stem size and height, and carbon stock values. This is rare, especially for remote areas like northeast Siberia and allows researchers to monitor carbon stock change rather than, or in addition to, changes in their density or height.

Recent Events

Over 50 people attended the joint Earth Day celebration commemorating the 30th anniversary of two Falmouth environmental groups, the Woods Hole Research Center (WHRC) and The 300 Committee (T3C). The event included an interpretive walk from WHRC to Peterson Farm and back, and a presentation on land use and preservation on Cape Cod.

Painting with a Broad Brush

The core responsibility assigned to governments in democracies is the public welfare, protecting the human birthright to basic needs: clean air, water, land, and a place to live, under equitable rules of access to all common property resources.  It is astonishing to discover that major political efforts in democracies can be turned to undermining the core purpose of government, destroying the factual basis for fair and effective protection of essential common property resources of all to feed the financial interests of a few.  These efforts, limiting scientific research on environment, denying the validity of settled facts and natural laws, are a shameful dance, far below acceptable or reputable political behavior.  It can be treated not as a reasoned alternative, but scorned for what it is – simple thievery.

—George M. Woodwell, WHRC founder

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.