Monthly Newsletter – September 2015

Monthly Newsletter of WHRC

Dr. Philip DuffyClimate change: “We’re not moving fast enough”

Dr. Philip Duffy, President & Executive Director

Earlier this month President Obama and foreign ministers from the eight Arctic nations (including the US) and key non-Arctic states gathered at the GLACIER conference in Anchorage to highlight and address “challenges facing the region.” I am proud that WHRC scientists played an important role in shaping this event – perhaps even in making it happen – which was dominated by discussions of climate change and its impacts.

The President gave a forceful speech. We were warned beforehand that climate change would be only one of many issues he would address, but in fact he focused strongly on that issue, highlighting an impressive list of measures his administration has taken, but repeating that “we are not moving fast enough.” Accompanying the President was Assistant to the President for Science and Technology (and former WHRC president) John Holdren, who offered what that The New York Times described as “a bleak, dispassionate report on diminished glaciers, melting permafrost, rising sea levels and the spread of wildfires.”

alaska-glacier_webAgainst this backdrop, Sarah Palin appeared on CNN to say that humans aren’t causing climate change, offering as proof the cherry-picked assertion that some glaciers in Alaska are growing. This is true, but overall Alaska’s glaciers are shrinking rapidly. A recent estimate found that they are losing 75 billion tons of ice every year, which is enough to supply almost a quarter of the water needs of the entire US. Needless to say, Palin should know better. Nowhere are the impacts of climate change more visible than in Alaska, where the wintertime average temperature has increased by 6.3oF in the past 50 years, twice the national average. Besides shrinking glaciers, these impacts include dramatic reductions in sea ice, rapid coastal erosion (caused partly by loss of sea ice), thawing permafrost, and raging wildfires (which accelerate permafrost thaw).

The President was right that we’re doing more than ever about climate change, but still not enough. As former South Carolina Congressman Bob Inglis said in the film Merchants of Doubt, we risk “leaving our children and grandchildren a legacy of people who failed to lead. People who, when it came their time to be awakened, slept.” In his Anchorage speech the President said, “Those who want to ignore the science… are on their own shrinking island.” I hope he’s right, and I hope that this particular island becomes submerged before it’s too late.

It has been extremely gratifying to see the imprint of the WHRC’s work in the GLACIER conference. Successes like this inspire us to work even harder to understand climate change science and to bring that understanding into the realm of policy. Thanks as always for your interest and support.

Welcome new Chief Development Officer Alison Smart

AlisonSmart_webAlison Smart has joined WHRC as the new Chief Development Officer. She comes to the Center from her post as Vice President for Development & Marketing at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. Over the course of her eight-year tenure, she raised significant funds to build the museum’s financial capacity and expand its physical campus with the addition of a new Education Center & Research Library. She also participated in the museum’s strategic reorientation from teaching primarily whaling history to including whale ecology and conservation exhibitions and programs. Part of that new focus involved research projects, such as a collaboration with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) called “Old Weather,” which mined the museum’s massive collection of whaling logbooks, some dating back to the 17th century, to model future weather patterns.

Weather is a common theme in Alison’s life, and it is her first-hand experience of extreme weather that ultimately led her to be inspired by WHRC’s climate change work. The year after she graduated college from the University of Miami (FL), the city was rocked by a succession of four hurricanes, including Katrina and Wilma, both Category 5 storms. These events, so closely linked with the changing climate, had a profound effect upon her. She never thought she would have the opportunity to use her professional experience to do something about it, until now. For her, “The idea of using my experience to make even a small contribution towards this massive challenge is incredibly motivating.”

An avid surfer, weather is an important component of Alison’s down time, and she likens surfing to being a development executive. “In surfing, you never know what to expect until you get out there and ride that first wave of the day. The waves are always faster or weaker or choppier than you initially presumed. I think one of the aspects I enjoy about fundraising is that it is not an exact science. No two days are ever the same, and you are almost always surprised by where a conversation may lead.”

Welcome, Alison!

New Hope for Degraded Lands in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

mucuna1_webThe Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) contains the second largest tropical forest on the Earth and, as such, plays an important role in contributing to and mitigating climate change. Yet, the expansion of slash and burn agriculture continues to drive deforestation, leading to widespread land degradation and greater pressure to convert intact forests to agricultural lands. The challenge for the DRC is to identify agricultural techniques that will renourish the already degraded soils.

WHRC’s Projet Equateur team is testing the efficacy of the leafy legume mucuna as a short rotation crop to rehabilitate exhausted soils. Much like rotating peanut crops with cotton in the American south, mucuna adds nutrients to the soil and fixes nitrogen. The hardy and dense ground cover cools the soil and suffocates invasive weeds and shrubs which, in turn, decay and fertilize the soil. Seven months ago, three test plots were planted in the village of Buya 1. In that time, the soil beneath the thick leaves became an encouraging rich dark color, teeming with beneficial insects and other micro-organisms. The plots, which will reduce the need for weeding and enrich the soils, have already attracted the attention of the local community, and plans for three new plots are underway as a cover crop in fruit tree groves.

The Projet Equateur program is a pilot project of the United Nation’s Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD)+ program designed to regenerate forests through novel development projects. The team collaborates with community leaders, partners and innovators to identify forest-friendly economic opportunities. The mucuna trials are part of the broader agroforestry and agricultural program. Other strategies include marketing techniques, development of high-efficiency charcoal, and fuel-efficient stoves.

WHRC in the News, Publications, and Events

WHRC in the News

Senior Scientists Scott Goetz and Max Holmes discuss climate change in the Arctic in, “Obama finds perfect climate change victim in Alaska.”

WHRC scientists Max Holmes and Susan Natali advised US Department of State officials in advance of the Conference on Global Leadership in the Arctic: Cooperation, Innovation, Engagement and Resilience (GLACIER), which brought President Obama and high-level representatives of other nations together to discuss challenges in the Arctic.


The longest and largest controlled burn experiment ever conducted in the Amazon rainforest has yielded new insight into the ways tropical forests succumb to – and bounce back from – large-scale wildfires, according to new research co-authored by Assistant Scientist Paulo Brando. The research, which was published in the journal BioScience, is the result of a decade-long study in the world’s largest rainforest and highlights the complex roles that factors such as climate, burn frequency, and plant diversity can play in determining the forest’s response to wildfires.

Expanding agriculture, climate change, air pollution and invasive pests are pushing the forests of the world beyond their ability to recover, but identification of the tipping points continues to be elusive. In the introduction to a special issue on Forest Health in the journal Science, Assistant Scientist Paulo Brando and colleagues distill current scientific knowledge about the boundaries of forest health and recommend a global strategy for monitoring changes as they occur.


On Thursday, September 17 at 5:30 p.m., Woods Hole Research Center will present a community lecture entitled Why Everyone is Talking About Permafrost Thaw, with Max Holmes and Susan Natali. The event is free and open to the public and will be held at the Center’s Harbourton Auditorium. To RSVP, email:

WHRCtreeWoods Hole Research Center is an independent research institution where scientists investigate the causes and effects of climate change to identify and implement opportunities for conservation, restoration, and economic development around the globe.