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The good, the bad, and the ugly from COP23
Dr. Philip Duffy, President & Executive Director
Behind the scenes of the 23rd Conference of the Parties (COP23) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, negotiators mainly focused on ironing out implementation rules of the landmark Paris Agreement. These can be very important, but are also very arcane, and don’t make for the most exciting media coverage. Despite the lack of big announcements, however, there was progress and good news.
Positive developments from COP23, which concluded last week, were a heightened appreciation for the role of natural systems in climate mitigation, and a new, elevated status for indigenous groups in the negotiations. Less positive is a new alignment in global leadership, reflecting abdication by the United States of its previous exemplary role.
In the past few years there has been greatly increased recognition of the importance of natural systems (forests, soils, etc.) in mitigating climate change. This elevates the visibility and importance of WHRC’s work, of course. Unfortunately, the reason for this change is that we’ve now added so much CO2 to the atmosphere that it has become impossible to reach any reasonable climate goal without taking much of it back out. Land management is the only approach available now that can do this at the necessary scale. At this COP, WHRC scientists took part in multiple side events that showed how our work contributes to using forests and other natural systems to mitigate climate change.
In keeping with heightened recognition of the role of natural systems, indigenous peoples’ groups at COP23 were granted elevated status in the negotiations, and also a path to secure more climate change funding from the United Nations. One reason for this action was WHRC research showing that indigenous peoples have been more successful than others at preserving forests (and forest carbon) in the territories they control. This new status for indigenous peoples is therefore a win for the climate as well as for these groups.
This was the first COP after President Trump’s announcement that the United States would withdraw from the Paris Agreement. In the negotiations, the US reportedly maintained a narrow focus on the goal of increasing transparency in emissions reporting — which depending on the specifics could be a good thing. Publicly, the US delegation kept a low profile, in contrast to previous COPs where they hosted a pavilion to highlight US government work on climate change. This time, the US hosted only one side event — an embarrassing advertisement for fossil fuel interests. As someone said, this was like advertising cigarettes at a cancer conference.
Because of the reduced US federal government role, a wide range of Americans stepped forward to ensure that the United States remains engaged in climate change action. A number of states, including Massachusetts, California, and Washington, sent officials. California Governor Jerry Brown was a constant presence — reminding everyone that the Trump Administration does not speak for most Americans. His predecessor, Arnold Schwarznegger, came the second week, to speak about the health impacts of climate change. Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg paid for a pavilion—the largest at the COP, I am told (a distinction which Trump might appreciate).
The lack of US leadership — indeed the embarrassing use of the COP to promote fossil fuels — sends a clear message that other nations will have to lead. This is a huge opportunity lost, and I am afraid another unnecessary and unwise step in the direction of diminishing US status and influence.
As I often say (and it continues to get more and more true), the need for WHRC’s work and the opportunities we have to make a difference have never been greater.
Thanks as always for your interest and support.
WHRC delegation discusses forests and permafrost at UN Climate Conference
In early November, a team of WHRC scientists traveled to Germany to make sure that the critical roles of forests, soils and permafrost were a central part of the conversation at the 23rd annual UN Climate Change Convention. This gathering –COP23 – was hosted by Fiji but was held in Bonn, Germany, due to logistical concerns.
Amid the constant flow of meetings, press conferences, and negotiations, WHRC scientists took part in four side events at COP23. The first focused on deteriorating Arctic systems, including thawing permafrost. WHRC President Phil Duffy appeared at the event with acclaimed climate scientist Dr. James Hansen, and Pam Pearson, director of the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative.
Dr. Duffy said that emissions from thawing permafrost are a “huge and under appreciated climate threat” and not including them in climate models is a “scientific failure.”
Three additional side events discussed the critical role of forests in reducing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide. WHRC worked with partners such as the New York Declaration on Forests, The Nature Conservancy, Environmental Defense Fund, and Australia’s Griffith University to push the message that forests and land management are a critical component of any realistic path to stay under 2°C of global warming.
Immediately before COP23, WHRC released a policy brief on the carbon sequestration potential of forests and land use. In Bonn, Dr. Wayne Walker and Dr. Alessandro Baccini presented the results of their recent Science paper on a new approach to measure forest carbon density, as well as cutting edge research on the potential for carbon storage in global forests and soils.
WHRC scientists lead Columbia River research expedition
Last month, WHRC led an expedition of international scientists down the Columbia River, the largest river in the Pacific Northwest. The trip was part of the Global Rivers Observatory, a project that WHRC runs in conjunction with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI).
Scientists from WHRC and WHOI collaborate to monitor the vital signs of Earth’s most significant river systems, from tropical rivers such as the Amazon and the Congo, to the rivers that flow north and empty into the Arctic, such as the Kolyma, and the Lena. In all, the Observatory monitors 18 different watersheds.
Rivers are conduits of material and chemical flow from land to ocean, and they can tell a lot about the health of a watershed, according to WHRC Deputy Director Max Holmes, one of the leaders of the Global Rivers Observatory.
Dr. Holmes and Dr. Bernhard Peucker-Ehrenbrink of WHOI led the collection of water samples – which were transported back to the WHRC laboratory. WHRC scientist Anya Suslova took part in the expedition and is currently analyzing the samples.
Traveling upriver from the ocean over the course of a week, the scientists passed through dramatically different ecosystems and also saw the effects of deforestation and development. They passed log-laden vessels, and the hillsides were patchy with areas of clear-cut land.
“When went to bed, the riverside was covered in huge, tall trees, and it was all dense and green,” Ms. Suslova said. “When we woke up, it was a desert. The change in the landscape was crazy.”
Through the Global Rivers Observatory, WHRC is advancing understanding of how climate change, deforestation, and other disturbances are impacting river chemistry and land-ocean linkages. This knowledge is vital for tracking the health of Earth’s watersheds and for predicting how Earth’s water and chemical cycles will change in the future. As the human population approaches nine billion people over the coming decades, this understanding will be essential as vast numbers of people dependent on the services rivers provide struggle to adapt to rapidly changing conditions.
WHRC researchers talk marshes, cranberries, mangroves, rivers at Coastal Conference
Four WHRC scientists presented their research this month at the Coastal & Estuarine Research Federation’s biennial conference in Providence, Rhode Island.
The talks covered topics from agricultural impact on coastal ecosystems to carbon storage in wetlands.
Hillary Sullivan presented her research on the impact of nitrogen in salt marshes. Lindsay Scott discussed “Nitrogen and Phosphorus Balances of Cranberry Bogs in Southeastern Massachusetts Coastal Watersheds.”
Dr. Jonathan Sanderman focused on his work with carbon sequestration in mangrove forest soils. WHRC Deputy Director Max Holmes spoke about river inputs to the Arctic Ocean.
WHRC welcomes arctic scientist and Cape Cod rivers researcher
Dr. Leah Birch joined the WHRC staff this month as a postdoctoral fellow studying the seasonal carbon cycle in the arctic permafrost using a land surface modeling approach. She received her B.S. in Computational Mathematics from Loyola University New Orleans and her Ph.D. in Applied Mathematics from Harvard University.
Dr. Birch is originally from Mobile, Alabama, and having grown up on the Gulf Coast she was “never a huge fan of the cold.” And yet, she became attracted to research that focuses on the Arctic. “In fact,” she said, “the goal of my first project was to simulate massive ice growth and to better understand land-atmosphere feedbacks during an ice age. Now at WHRC, I get to turn my attention to the opposite Arctic transition––warming in the future. The goal of this project is a better understanding of the seasonal carbon cycle through land model simulations with comparisons to observations.” Chilly Cape Cod winters and research in the Arctic are now no big deal to Dr. Birch, who is excited to work closely with the scientists collecting the field data.
Kelsey Chenoweth is a recent graduate of Bates College with a B.S. in Geology. Her senior thesis considered the affects of ditch plugs in salt marshes on methane emissions. She works on the Cape Cod Rivers Observatory, helping to collect discharge measurements and water samples in the field and analyzing nutrients, carbon, and nitrogen in the lab. She calculates the constituent fluxes for the six Cape Cod rivers (Mashpee, Santuit, Quashnet, Herring Brook, Red Brook, and Coonamessett) in order to better understand the system as a whole.
Ms. Chenoweth is from Stowe, Vermont, and prior to working at WHRC, she was at the Casco Bay Estuary Partnership monitoring salt marshes pre- and post-restoration. “Ever since I have been at WHRC,” she said, “I have experienced and learned something new every day. I feel that I’m contributing to something bigger, and it’s wonderful to be in a place where I can combine my passion for environmental science with new and interesting techniques, technologies and research. It’s been an incredible experience so far, and I can’t wait to continue exploring, learning, and experiencing WHRC.”
Mammoth last in Fall Film Series
Monday, December 4, 5:30-7 pm
This intriguing documentary by Grant Slater tells the story of Sergey and Nikita Zimov, remarkable father-son scientists from a remote outpost in the Siberian Arctic, and their vision to revive the vanished ice age Mammoth Steppe ecosystemas a tool to stop permafrost thaw and mitigate climate change. The experiment is already underway in a reserve they call Pleistocene Park and involves restoring large animals to the landscape, including the now extinct wooly mammoth.
The short film (26 min) will be followed by a panel discussion featuring Nikita Zimov and Grant Slater, and moderated by WHRC’s Max Holmes, who has worked with the Zimovs for many years. To register, visit whrc.org/mammoth-film.
WHRC in the news
Research Assistant Got Her Start on the Lena River in Siberia, a story on WHRC’s Anya Suslova, ran in The Falmouth Enterprise. 3 November.
The following articles appeared in response to the release of the US National Climate Assessment:
- U.S. Report Says Humans Cause Climate Change, Contradicting Top Trump Officials,The New York Times’ story on the report’s release, quoted WHRC president Phil Duffy;
- Federal Agencies Deliver Blunt Report on Human-Caused Climate Change appeared in Yale Environment 360;
- Global rise of just 3C could leave many cities below sea level ran in Digital Journal.
Big week for Fernandes at Statehouse noted the passing of the Massachusetts bill to sign on to the Paris Agreement, for which WHRC president Phil Duffy testified in support. 3 November.
New research shows why forests are absolutely essential to meeting Paris Climate Agreement goals appeared in Mongabay and quoted WHRC president Phil Duffy. 9 November.
Thawing permafrost may release carbon and methane, contributing to further global warming was an interview with Associate Scientist Sue Natali and Deputy Director Max Holmes on Canada’s CTV. 11 November.
Is Grass-fed Beef Better for the Climate? It’s Complicated. WHRC’s Michael Coe was interviewed for the daily publication Civil Eats. 13 November.
USDA, Woods Hole Research Center To Monitor Nitrogen In Coonamessett appeared in The Falmouth Enterprise and quoted WHRC’s Christopher Neill. 21 November.
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. In June 2017, WHRC was ranked as the top independent climate change think tank in the world for the fourth year in a row.