Ecosystems and Climate Change

Climate change is altering natural ecosystems in unexpected ways, transforming landscapes, and changing animal and plant species distribution and biodiversity. These changes reflect a shift in terrestrial carbon that will negatively impact the climate system.

The Ecosystems and Climate Change Program combines data from fieldwork and satellite sensors to track climate-related changes in landscapes and to predict future climate and landscape alterations based on anticipated changes in climate. The team endeavors to identify opportunities for biodiversity protection and climate change mitigation.

Biodiversity, Parks & Protected Areas, and Habitat Corridors in the tropics and North America
Ordway_BeechesClimate change and deforestation are changing ecosystems, isolating organisms in protected areas that will change along with climate, threatening their survival. Nearly every animal and plant species requires travelling some distance for nutrition and reproduction, but few conservation or climate mitigation strategies take the connections between conserved lands into account. These habitat corridors connecting parks and protected areas are essential for longer-term biodiversity conservation and also provide opportunities for climate change mitigation in the form of carbon sequestration and avoiding emissions from deforestation. The Ecosystems and Climate Change Program creates maps of habitat corridors connecting protected areas to incorporate biodiversity co-benefits into climate change mitigation strategies.

Greening and Browning of the Arctic
Alaska-river-through-fieldsThe Arctic consists of two distinct biomes, expansive boreal forests and the wide open tundra. Both of these systems have experienced dramatic changes over the past few decades as the region is subjected to greater temperature increases and more frequent and intense drought conditions. Where boreal forests have experienced widespread productivity declines or “browning,” tundra regions, by contrast, are responding positively or “greening” to the warmer conditions. Both of these changes impact the global carbon balance and by extension the global climate system. WHRC seeks to understand the changes that are occurring in the Arctic and the implications of these changes on the global climate.

Fire and Climate Feedbacks in the Arctic
larch forest photo by Peter GanzlinHigh latitude boreal forests are an integral part of the global ecosystem, with important influences on the global cycling of energy, carbon and water. Over the past 30 years, boreal forests have experienced a significant amount of warming and drying which, if trends continue as predicted, are likely to induce feedbacks that may further influence the global climate. The goal of the Woods Hole Research Center’s work in this region is to quantify the magnitude and variability of carbon exchange, assess the mechanisms by which fire disturbance influences these processes, and characterize how changes in these ecosystems respond to and are influencing climate.

Reducing emissions from land use change in Eastern & Southern Africa
servirReducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, along with forest restoration and conservation will be key elements of climate change mitigation strategies through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change REDD+ mechanism. Many developing countries still lack the capabilities to accurately quantify greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, and the absorption of CO2 as forests regrow and are restored. WHRC assists East and Southern African countries involved in REDD+ readiness with their terrestrial carbon assessment and forest conservation strategies through applied research and training. The SERVIR team develops locally adapted information systems and tools to estimate historical and current emissions from land-use and land-cover change. Through training and capacity building in the use of maps, tools, techniques and models, WHRC scientists work towards improving national capabilities for estimating CO2 emissions and removals from forests while also promoting forest conservation in the region. More project information »

The Ecosystems and Climate Change Program comprises field expeditions in the tropics, North America and Siberia to collect observational data and uses satellite data to monitor changes. A new focus includes installation of a laser instrument on the international space station to monitor changes in forest carbon stocks as well as canopy habitat structure (press release). The team has published articles on boreal fire dynamics (press release), habitat corridors (press release), the greening and the browning of the Arctic (press release), new models predicting drastically warmer temperatures, global forest cover change, and parks and protected area effectiveness.

Ecosystems and Climate Change Program scientists have played an integral role in the design and structure of NASA’s Arctic Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE) program. WHRC scientists collaborate with other institutions to produce policy briefs for the international climate policy community, including speaking at the most recent United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of the Parties (COP) 20 in Lima, Peru ( on Why Forests? Why Now?.

A key goal of the Ecosystems and Climate Change Program is to train local community groups to monitor their land-based carbon stocks for carbon assessments and conservation.

SERVIR: Connecting Space and Villages

Nairobi 2016
Zambia 2015
Kenya 2015
Kenya 2014
DRC 2013
Tanzania 2012