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Envisioning success—starting with the Amazon
Dr. Philip Duffy, President & Executive Director
Humanity’s grand challenge for the 21st century is not just to manage global climate change, but also to feed and otherwise help a population of 10 or 11 billion people to prosper, and at the same time preserve essential natural systems upon which our well-being and livelihoods are based. That, in a nutshell, is also the mission of WHRC.
This challenge will be faced acutely in the developing world, where populations and economic activity are increasing most rapidly, and where critical natural systems are highly vulnerable. Nowhere, perhaps, are these issues more immediate than in Brazil, which is home to the world’s largest intact tropical rainforest and a diverse tropical savanna, both of which are threatened by climate change and by the emergence of Brazil as a global agricultural powerhouse. This month—along with a few WHRC Board members and donors—I had the opportunity to see first-hand the challenges in Brazil and the remarkable work WHRC is doing there to understand and address them.
As a scientist, what impresses me most about our work in Brazil is its effective integration of diverse approaches, including a comprehensive array of field measurements, large scale manipulation experiments (for example a large forest-burning experiment), remote sensing, and computer modeling. This integrated approach, sustained now for more than a decade, allows an unusually thorough understanding of how human and natural systems are affecting each other in this critical region.
Among the more significant findings of this work is that large-scale deforestation is affecting not only global climate—which has been known for some time—but also regional climate in the Amazon. Indeed, some of these effects are large enough to be palpable as one moves between and within forest and cleared areas. A particularly important consequence of deforestation is reduction in precipitation, including a shortening of the rainy season. This threatens to prevent double-cropping, which is central to the efficiency of Brazilian agriculture. Yes, agriculture is in this sense a threat to itself.
Interesting though this may be, none of it would have much impact without our use of partnerships to bring the research into the world of policy and application. First among these partnerships is our long-standing relationship with the Brazil-based Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM), whose strong connections to Brazilian policy-makers provide an avenue for our work to influence state and national policies. Through IPAM we also partner with the Amaggi Group, the world’s largest private producer of soybeans. The exchange of data between our scientists and the growers allows us to see not only the effects of industrial agriculture on nearby forests and ecosystems, but also to document how forests improve agricultural productivity on nearby fields. Remarkably, this cooperation has been made possible by a former winner of Greenpeace’s “Golden Chainsaw” award, Blairo Maggi (Amaggi’s owner). Finally, we also partner with universities, in both Brazil and the United States, that contribute key social science insights and whose students are the vehicles for carrying this work into the future.
One of the comments that stuck with me from my week in Brazil is “We need examples that work,” meaning that we need to demonstrate the ability to combine economic growth with protection of critical natural systems (including climate). We need to prove that “sustainable development” is more than a catch-phrase.
There may be nowhere better to do this than Brazil, where the challenges and opportunities are so great and so immediate. To succeed there we’ll need to deepen our partnerships with in-country institutions and to more closely integrate our scientific work with an understanding of the societal barriers to effective solutions. We also need new sources of support for our scientific work, which is threatened by expected continuing declines in US government research funding. The challenges are great, but if we can succeed in the Amazon, we can succeed anywhere.
Thanks as always for your interest and support.
Arctic Council argues over climate change while WHRC moves forward on solutions
At the Arctic Council ministerial meetings in Fairbanks, Alaska, this month international leaders jousted with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson over the organization’s stance on climate chance. Just down the road, however, the focus was entirely on science and solutions as WHRC and WWF hosted an event at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks on climate change and the Arctic.
The Arctic Council includes all eight Arctic countries – Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States. The United States has held the chairmanship for the past two years, and it was passed over to Finland at the Fairbanks meetings. The Council has traditionally been in favor of aggressive action on climate change, but the Trump Administration’s uncertain stance on the Paris Climate Agreement turned the ministerial meeting into a tug-of-war over climate change language.
“We are currently reviewing several important policies, including how the Trump Administration will approach the issue of climate change,” Tillerson told the meeting. “We’re not going to rush to make a decision.”
The other foreign ministers pushed back, eventually securing a joint statement that acknowledged the issue and mentioned the Paris Agreement.
“The challenges of melting sea ice, thawing permafrost, and changes in our ecosystems are complex,” said Finnish Foreign Minister Timos Soini. “They cannot be solved one by one, or in isolation.”
At the WHRC/WWF event, speakers focused instead on the impact of climate change in the Arctic and the impact on the rest of the world caused by unraveling arctic systems.
“While the earth is warming, the Arctic is warming even more,” said WHRC Deputy Director Dr. Max Holmes.
Speakers at the event discussed potential climate engineering solutions and policy solutions.
“The US Congress holds back the rest of the world,” Mr. Pomerance said. But he said that would change when US politicians realize that changes in the Arctic will have a direct impact on their constituent. “The Arctic is the path to solving the political problem through the sea level rise issue. The state of Virginia, the state of Florida, the state of Louisiana, the City of Boston, the state of Massachusetts, they are all at risk.”
Information superhighway comes to DRC forest community
On the frontiers of the great Central African rainforest, WHRC scientists work with local communities to avoid deforestation. One of the largest challenges faced by these populations has been a lack of access to information, according to Eva McNamara, who was part of WHRC’s Projet Equateur in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
Last summer, WHRC staff in the DRC built an internet-connected library at the Institut Supérieur de Développement Rural Mbandaka to give local students of sustainable development access to a universe of information. After extensive training, the library was opened to students in late April, according to Joseph Zambo – the provincial REDD coordinator for Equateur Province.
The Congo Basin has the second largest area of intact tropical forest in the world – after the Amazon. WHRC scientists have been working on sustainable development techniques to avoid deforestation and forest degradation in Equateur Province.
“We surveyed people in their final year of university on basic things like climate change and forests. We also asked them a lot of questions about the school, their studies and biggest challenges,” said Ms. McNamara. “Both students and professors spoke of the difficulty in obtaining information relevant to their studies. The books in the local library were from the 1960s – the Belgian era. The Internet is accessible by phone, but it is expensive.”
Armed with information from the survey, WHRC staff procured 10 laptops and 20 tablets, reinforced the building to prevent theft, helped write protocols to manage and use the computers, installed a solar panel battery array, and installed a rooftop satellite internet system. The tablets are pre-loaded with relevant information, the laptops are internet-connected, and according to Ms. McNamara the Internet only gives out on particularly cloudy days.
“People will now be able to do more in-depth research, become well-versed in their own right, and be a part of the conversation about their forests and how they are managed,” Ms. McNamara said.
Ms. McNamara and WHRC’s Melaine Kermarc delivered the initial training for the new facility, and Mr. Zambo continued the trainings through April.
“Building a green economy is the pathway to sustainable development and key to avoiding deforestation in the Congo Basin,” said Dr. Glenn Bush, who leads WHRC’s work in the region. “We’re not going to achieve development that is sustainable if local leaders, those at the frontline of change, don’t have access to the most current knowledge. That’s why this virtual library is so important. We’re laying the foundation for the current and future generation of local leaders to understand sustainability, to make informed choices on managing their environmental resources, and set their own path to an equitable, low carbon future.”
WHRC scientist honored by Northeastern University
Last month WHRC Senior Scientist Linda Deegan gave the 2017 Riser Award Lecture to an overflow crowd at Northeastern University’s Marine Science Center in Nahant, MA. As part of an all-day event honoring Dr. Deegan and her long-term ecological study of the Plum Island (MA) salt marsh, her lecture presented the essence of the pioneering TIDE project.
Salt marshes, important for the benefits and protections they provide, are affected by increased temperatures, storms, and sea level rise, but the bigger impact over the last several decades has come from fertilizers and other nutrients flowing downstream. It was once thought that salt marshes might provide the solution to nutrient loading, but the TIDE project has shown that the influx of nutrients can actually weaken the salt marsh grasses and damage the ecosystem’s structure. Plum Island was chosen as the research site because it is unaffected by nutrients, allowing scientists to do a controlled experiment to understand how a salt marsh would respond.
Since its inception in 2002, over a hundred scientists have worked on and contributed to TIDE, which is considered one of the world’s premier salt marsh ecosystem experiments. The large, interdisciplinary project was a complex experiment to manipulate, measure and model every aspect of the tidal ecosystem. The scientists aimed to study everything about the marsh, from the smallest of microbes to biggest of fish, and they measured the flooding and the outgoing water to determine how much of the nutrients were retained in the marsh.
For each of the first 13 years, 40 tons of nitrate were delivered to the site, which comprises 60,000 square meters or 10 football fields, to test the limits of what the marsh could process. They found, for example, that a natural marsh took up almost all the nitrogen, but increasing the nutrient load by a factor of 10 overwhelmed the marsh capacity for removal, resulting in only 45% removal of the added nutrients. The grasses grew taller but developed smaller root systems, destabilizing the marsh. Microbes used the added nitrogen to decompose the marsh faster than the plants could rebuild it, causing crumbling and decay of the marsh edge. The marsh edge is a critical habitat for fish, and these changes resulted in lower fish abundance. Now the researchers are assessing how fast a previously nutrient-laden marsh ecosystem can recover and return to its original function.
Shortly after Dr. Deegan’s presentation, scientists from seven universities and institutions gathered at WHRC for the annual TIDE meeting and presented their most recent findings. They reported on varying aspects of the marsh ecosystem, including microbes, plants, invertebrates and fish. The project continues apace, with a new crop of young researchers joining Dr. Deegan and her colleagues during the summer months.
While coastal ecosystems such as saltmarshes protect cities from storms and provide food, they also suffer from myriad threats and challenging impacts. One of the core values of the long-term TIDE project lies in isolating threats and finding solutions. As a result of the TIDE study, cities and towns along the coasts have another reason to tackle nitrogen removal.
The National Science Foundation and the Northeast Climate Science Center provide funding for the TIDE project.
Now more than ever, science needs leaders
WHRC scientist Sue Natali has been selected by Homeward Bound for its all-women year-long leadership program, culminating in a three-week scientific expedition to Antarctica in early 2018. Now in its second year, the Australia-based Homeward Bound project is in the midst of building a 1,000-woman global scientific network, with a focus on “the leadership and planning required to contribute to climate science and environmental conservation.”
Dr. Natali, whose body of work focuses on carbon emissions in the northern high latitudes, will join this year’s consortium of 70 women to contribute to this global network. “I will be taking part in the second Antarctic expedition,” she said, “and participating in leadership skills workshops, as well as programs from top Antarctic scientists, who will deliver a cutting-edge program on global climate, biological, and Earth system science.” Dr. Natali is raising funding for the expedition, the costs of which are only partially covered.
2017 Polaris team readies for arctic field work
Last month, a group of undergraduate and graduate students from across the United States gathered at WHRC to prepare for a summer studying climate change impacts in Alaska’s remote Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.
The group – the 2017 edition of The Polaris Project – came together for a weekend of orientation, safety training, and research preparation. This season’s Polaris Project team consists of several faculty, education assessors, physicians, and a dozen students from nine different states and Puerto Rico. The project advances scientific understanding of climate change impacts on the Arctic, while also preparing the next generation of scientists.
Since its inception in 2008, The Polaris Project has conducted fieldwork with teams of young researchers in Siberia. Led by WHRC scientists Max Holmes and Sue Natali, the orientation workshop in April covered the details of camp life at a remote site as well as project development and students’ research plans.
Traveling from Fairbanks to their Yukon Delta camp site by float plane, the Polaris researchers will spend two weeks measuring greenhouse gases and collecting vegetation and permafrost cores and water samples with the aid of Drs. Holmes and Natali, as well as long-time Polaris researchers Drs. John Schade and Paul Mann and WHRC’s Ludda Ludwig. In addition, the students will learn about carbon cycling, how terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems are connected, and how fire affects permafrost thaw.
After the field work, the students will return to WHRC for two weeks in July to process and analyze the samples from Alaska, conduct lab experiments, and prepare and present their research results. Some will take samples back to their universities for their senior theses.
WHRC seeking Boston area homeowners for ecological study
WHRC researchers often travel to the far reaches of the globe for their work–from the remote Siberian Arctic to the dense jungles of Central Africa. This summer, however, a group of WHRC scientists will be doing their research in Boston-area backyards as part of a nationwide study on land management and suburban ecology.
“Not all biodiversity can be protected on public lands,” said WHRC senior scientist Dr. Christopher Neill, who leads the research. “Managing small private lands is a new frontier for conservation and conservation science. It’s important because four out of every five Americans now lives in cities or suburbs. The area of suburban lands is large and still growing rapidly.”
WHRC is seeking volunteer homeowners to allow scientists to visit several times between June and August 2017. The researchers will explore how yard management affects the composition of plants, birds, insect pollinators, and soil in the greater Boston metropolitan area. This research is a part of a larger project that compares residential landscapes in Boston, Baltimore, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Miami, Phoenix, and Los Angeles.
In addition to contributing to important environmental research, homeowners who participate in the study will receive a report at the end of the season cataloguing the plants, birds, bees, and ground insects found in the yard as well as soil nutrient data.
The WHRC team is looking for volunteers from the following towns: Beverly, Cohasset, Danvers, Hingham, Ipswich, Lynnfield, Melrose, Middleborough, Needham, Newton, Norwell, Norwood, Peabody, Reading, Rowley, Scituate, Sharon, Stoneham, Plymouth, Walpole, Wakefield, Waltham, Wareham, Winchester, Wenham, Westwood, Weymouth, and Woburn.
Sign up online at: surveymonkey.com/r/yardfuturesBoston
WHRC Founder George M. Woodwell speaking in the Commons of the Woodwell Building on April 27. “You are standing on a small piece of a world where we could live – a renewable energy world,” he said. “We have to move to renewable energy in a big way.”
WHRC in the news
‘We all knew this was coming’: Alaska’s thawing soils are now pouring carbon dioxide into the air ran in The Washington Post and quoted WHRC’s Dr. Susan Natali. 8 May.
Would the Planet Be Better Off If Trump Left the Paris Deal? The New Republic sought the view of WHRC Deputy Director Max Holmes. 8 May.
WHRC Senior Arctic Policy Fellow Rafe Pomerance was quoted in The Observer in More Than 90 Scientists Release Report That Arctic Is ‘Unraveling’ (1 May), and in The New York Times article, Arctic Nations to Meet Amid Unsettled U.S. Stance on Climate Change (9 May) in advance of the Arctic Council Ministerial in Fairbanks, AK. “Secretary of State Tillerson should take the message from the Arctic to the White House to persuade the administration of the urgency of policy to slow the warming of the Arctic,” said Mr. Pomerance, who is also the chair of Arctic 21.
WHRC’s Brendan Rogers was quoted in The Boston Globe in A new kind of street tree grows in Newton, an article about tree planting efforts in Newton, MA. The article cited a study that Dr. Rogers led regarding trees’ ability to adapt to climate change.
Nature wrote about The wooden skyscrapers that could help to cool the planet, and quoted WHRC’s Christopher Schwalm.
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.