“There are so many cultural differences to consider,” notes Dave McGlinchey. “From how the meetings proceed, to specific local sensitivities, even down to Congolese humor. Even if I was cracking jokes in fluent French, it would be impossible to get the tone right. That’s why having someone like Joseph was so important.”
In July, McGlinchey, Chief of Government Relations at Woodwell Climate, traveled with members of the Center’s risk team to Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo for a two-day workshop. The Center has been involved in community work in the country for over 15 years, led in large part by Joseph Zambo, Woodwell’s policy coordinator in the DRC. This workshop represents the latest collaboration— an initial assessment of the country’s future climate risks. Congolese professors, scientists, and government officials joined to discuss gaps in the data and to develop adaptation strategies to be included in a final report later this year.
The workshop was facilitated by Zambo who, with poignant questions, stories to recount, and of course, a bit of humor, guided the group through the tough work of planning for the future.
The community risk work in Kinshasa is one of over 20 successful risk assessments conducted as part of Woodwell Climate’s Just Access initiative. The project produces free, location-specific climate risk analysis for cities and regions both in the US and abroad. The hope is that, by providing free access to quality data— something often offered by private companies at prohibitively high costs — Just Access can facilitate adaptation planning for under-resourced communities.
“With Just Access, we want to remove the barrier of cost for communities that want to understand the long-term risks they are facing because of climate change,” says McGlinchey. “Often these communities are the ones already facing climate-related challenges that will worsen as the century goes on.”
Guided by a community’s particular concerns, Woodwell’s Risk team works with available data on key climate risks—flooding, heat, water scarcity, fire— and uses models to construct an image of how those events are likely to change as global temperatures climb. In the DRC, water is a core concern, both in its absence, causing drought and crop failure, and in its abundance.
“Heavy rains cause horrific flooding in the city of Mbandaka almost once or twice a year,” says Zambo. “In the capital, heavy rains are also destroying homes, roads, electrical structures, and internet connections.”
The most pressing risks vary from region to region. Across the world, in Acre, Brazil, Senior Scientist Emeritus Dr. Foster Brown says, “the word here is ‘heat.’” In Homer and Seldovia, Alaska, increasing wildfire days featured heavily.
But improvements in data availability and resolution, as well as refinements of climate models, have made it possible to replicate assessments for a variety of risks in places as distant and different from each other as Homer, Alaska and Kerala, India. Risk assessments can offer both region-wide crop yield estimates and street-level maps of flooding for a single city district to inform community planning.
Key to the success of municipal-level work are relationships with people like Zambo, who can offer insights into the needs of a community that can’t be approximated from the outside. Each community is different— in what information they need to make decisions, their level of technical expertise, their governmental capacity to implement changes, and in the ways they prefer to work.
So, with each new assessment, the Risk team starts from scratch, building new relationships and listening to community needs. This process takes double time on the international stage, where a history of superficial NGO and academic involvement can overshadow collaboration.
“A main goal with these reports is trust,” says Darcy Glenn, a Woodwell Climate research assistant who organized a risk assessment and workshop for Province 1 in Nepal last year with help from connections from her master’s program. “Building trust in the models, and trust in the methodology, and in us. That’s been our biggest hurdle when working with municipal leaders.”
Building that trust takes time. Province 1 was one of an early set of communities who worked with Woodwell Climate on risk assessments. While local leaders were interested in flooding and landslide risk information, what they really wanted was to increase the capacity of their own scientists and government employees to conduct climate modeling themselves. So the project was adapted to meet that need by tailoring a training workshop. The process took over a year to complete but Glenn says, that’s relationship-building time that can’t be rushed.
It also highlights the importance of pre-established long term connections in the places we work.
“It’s one thing to go into a new community by yourself, it’s another to go in with someone who has been there 30 years and can help navigate,” says Dr. Brown. “You have to look for the key people who can help make things happen.”
Within Brazil, Dr. Brown is now regarded as one of these “key people”. He has been living and working in Rio Branco for over 30 years and his credibility as a member of the community helped facilitate an assessment of extreme heat risk in the region. In the DRC, Zambo has been working with Woodwell Climate on various projects for over a decade. Without their expertise to bridge cultural and language gaps, completing projects in Brazil and the DRC would not have been possible.
After getting risk information into the hands of communities, then comes the hard work of putting it to use. For Dr. Christopher Schwalm, Director of Woodwell Climate’s Risk Program, “the goal of the risk assessments is to give communities every potential tool we can to build resilience for themselves and future generations. With access to the right information, the next step in the adaptation planning process can begin.”
In Rio Branco, Dr. Brown says speaking to the changes people are already noticing has helped individuals connect better to the data. He’s been using the context of heat and fire alongside information from their report to strengthen conversations about existing forest and climate initiatives, authoring an alert for the tri-national “MAP” region (Madre de Dios in Peru, Acre in Brazil, and Pando in Bolivia) about heat conditions and the implications for this year’s fire season.
He has also been introducing the information from the report to the community in other ways— teaching and speaking at events. According to Dr. Brown, widespread understanding of both near- and long-term climate risks will become more important for all communities as climate change progresses and impacts each place differently. Cities and towns will need reliable information to help them practically plan for the future.
“We’re trying to get people to expand their time ranges and start thinking about the future. And this report has helped,” says Dr. Brown. “Because the people who are going to see 2100 are already here. What will we be able to tell them about their future?”
It didn’t matter that she didn’t speak any English at the time, or that the American researchers who had chartered her father’s boat that summer didn’t speak any Russian, 14 year-old Anya Suslova was a quick learner. She watched them dip sample bottles into the Lena River, filter the water, and mark information down on the side of the bottle. By the end of the two week research expedition, Suslova had mastered the protocol and was helping Dr. Max Holmes and his fellow scientists collect water samples.
When the scientists returned to the United States, they left behind some equipment, in case Suslova and her father were interested in sampling throughout the winter. After a year without contact with Suslova, the researchers were delighted to return to the Lena the following summer to find months of samples and a neatly organized logbook she made.
Twenty years later, Suslova is a Research Assistant at Woodwell Climate Research Center who continues to bring her expertise and unique perspective to the Arctic Great Rivers Observatory (ArcticGRO). Since 2003, participants of ArcticGRO—scientists and Arctic community members alike—have been sampling water from the six largest rivers in the Arctic: the Ob’, Yenisey, Lena, and Kolyma in Siberia, and the Yukon and Mackenzie in North America. It’s a rare example of a long-term research project, designed to span decades, deepening our understanding of change across the years.
The Arctic is warming, on average, at least two times faster than the rest of the planet. We need to know the implications of this, but it can be difficult to study ecosystem change across such a vast area. Rivers can offer insights. The chemistry of a river connects environmental processes across its watershed, and the dissolved and particulate materials that are carried to the ocean can influence marine chemistry and biology. Measuring the concentrations of these materials, and how they are transported by rivers, provides vital information about changes in the linkages between terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems.
“Global climate change is rapidly and disproportionately affecting northern high latitude environments,” says Dr. Scott Zolkos, a Research Scientist at Woodwell Climate and one of ArcticGRO’s lead scientists. “Monitoring Arctic river chemistry is critical for detecting trends and understanding the effects of environmental change on northern ecosystems.”
In order to uncover those trends and effects, need to establish baselines on the key chemical constituents within rivers — organic matter, inorganic nutrients like nitrogen, sediments— to compare against future measurements. The more data gathered, the easier it is to sift out annual variability from longer term trends.
So, using Arctic rivers as sentinels of ecosystem health and environmental change was the idea behind the project’s creation, but it was the international collaboration that started with Suslova that gave ArcticGRO its longevity. The project leaders realized that enlisting the help of trained local residents could allow for sample collection in places, and during times of the year, that the researchers themselves couldn’t access. It also helped build enthusiasm for the project among Arctic communities.
“I believe that ArcticGRO has been able to go for so long because it is built on trust and a shared goal between scientists and local people who collect water samples,” says Suslova. “Amazingly the team of ArcticGRO hasn’t changed much over the last two decades, many of the original members are still involved. It feels like a family.”
Now, 20 years after its inception, the ArcticGRO team has published a paper in Nature Geoscience on long-term trends in pan-Arctic river chemistry. The team found strong signals of environmental change for some chemical constituents, but not in others. Alkalinity, which reflects rock weathering, increased in all rivers, while nitrate, an important nutrient for terrestrial and aquatic organisms, decreased. The authors hope the data and insights from this work will be invaluable to scientists refining models of the Arctic system.
“There’s nothing quite like ArcticGRO,” says Dr. Zolkos. “It’s unique in that it measures a comprehensive suite of chemical parameters across the Arctic’s largest rivers, uses consistent sampling and analytical methods across the rivers, and sampling occurs at the same times and locations. The consistency of ArcticGRO is increasingly valuable, because it is building a dataset which allows scientists around the world to detect, monitor, and understand northern environmental change in ways that no other scientific program does.”
A few thousand miles south of the Arctic circle, on the marshy coastline of Massachusetts, another long-term ecological research project has entered its third decade as well. The brainchild of Senior Scientist Dr. Linda Deegan, the TIDE project is unique even among long-term studies. Rather than simply monitoring the nutrient flows in the salt marshes of Plum Island Estuary, the TIDE project has been altering nutrients in carefully controlled amounts to understand the long term impacts of human development in coastal ecosystems.
TIDE focuses on nitrogen, an element of most fertilizers and a common pollutant from developed areas in the uplands. Previous studies of nitrogen impacts indicated coastal marsh plants could absorb a lot of nitrogen with no ill effects. But that dynamic was only examined on short time scales, and in small plots of marsh. Whether there were changes that might require many years or many acres to be detected, was unknown.
Thus TIDE was designed to increase nitrogen concentrations in the water to mimic coastal eutrophication across three marshes in the Plum Island estuary and document which effects might cascade through the system. The initial grant was for five years, but Dr. Deegan and her collaborators wanted to keep the project running for at least a decade, if not more, expecting the changes might be slow to reveal themselves.
After years of observations, Dr. Deegan says she remembers the exact moment they discovered a significant change.
“Several of the senior scientists—myself included—came back at the end of a long field day each of them saying, ‘I don’t remember it being this hard to walk through the nutrient enriched marsh when we started this project. Am I just getting older or has something changed?’ And then one of the new students said, ‘I thought that marsh was always like that—well, it’s not like that in the other sites where we haven’t added nitrogen.’”
So they followed the hunch, made some new measurements, and found the structure of the marsh had changed significantly with the added nitrogen. The plants, suddenly awash in a necessary component for growth, no longer needed to dedicate their energy to making roots to seek out nutrients; their root systems were shallower and less dense, thus less capable of holding the marsh together. At the same time, nitrogen-consuming microbes were breaking down organic matter in search of carbon to fuel the chemical processes that allow them to take up nitrogen. This combination made the marsh creek edges more susceptible to erosion by tides and storms.
It took more years than most experiments are run for, but increased susceptibility to erosion steadily altered the shape of stream channels. The ground along the edges of the streams, previously held in place by a deep network of roots, now collapsed underfoot. Chunks of marsh fell off the edges as the roots no longer held the marsh together. As the years went on, fish and other organisms that travel along stream floors to seek out food began to suffer from difficult terrain, resulting in slower growth and fewer fish.
These findings, published in Nature, upended the way people thought about the effects of eutrophication on marshes. “And we never would have known any of that,” says Dr. Deegan. “If we hadn’t done the project at an ecosystem scale and over such a long time.”
Over the decades, the TIDE project not only faced the challenges of running a consistent project for so long, but also of justifying making intentional changes to an otherwise healthy ecosystem. The question lingered: If the goal is to protect ecosystems from human disruption, what do we gain from knowingly tinkering with them?
Humans have already accidentally conducted thousands of ecological change experiments across the globe. Casually inflicted pollution, deforestation, or extinction with no control group, no careful observations, no time limits or safeguards—by scientific standards these are reckless and poorly designed experiments.
In Dr. Deegan’s mind, this makes controlled studies like TIDE even more significant.
“We need to know the true impact of the changes that we are already imposing on the environment. And once we do, we need to be able to halt those changes that threaten the integrity of an ecosystem.” Says Dr. Deegan. “This is a pipe I can easily turn off. Not like when you build a housing development and then you’re stuck with all those houses and their impacts forever.”
Climate change is perhaps the most all-encompassing of these involuntary experiments. As ArcticGRO’s and TIDEs results indicate, ecosystem responses to human disturbance, whether it is climate warming or nutrient over enrichment, are complex. Understanding and adapting to these responses will depend on continued monitoring, observation and experimentation.
In the world of research, rife with limited grants and time-bound fellowships, ArcticGRO and TIDE have been uniquely successful. Research Associate, Hillary Sullivan, who has been part of the TIDE project since 2012, attributes this to the dedication of the researchers, who showed up year after year to get the research done even when funding wasn’t certain or while enduring a global pandemic.
“These large scale projects are a testament to the people that are involved in the effort, and the work that goes in behind the scenes to keep it running,” says Sullivan.
Both ArcticGRO and TIDE plan to continue. ArcticGRO is seeking additional funding to analyze new chemical constituents and continue providing invaluable data for scientists and educators to understand how rivers are responding to a warming climate. “ArcticGRO has improved our understanding of the Arctic, and our work is just getting started,” says Dr. Zolkos. “Continuing will be essential for generating new insights on climate change, northern ecosystems, and societal implications.”
TIDE has now shifted to a new phase of study — observing the legacy of the added nitrogen on marsh recovery in the face of climate change induced sea level rise. Nitrogen additions were halted 6 years ago and researchers hope to gain insights into marsh restoration and ways to improve their resilience to sea level rise.
Thinking in the long-term is not something humans have historically excelled at, Dr. Deegan admits. But the more we try to expand our curiosity past immediate cause and effect, the better we get at understanding nature. If you want to understand an ecosystem, you have to think like an ecosystem—which means longer time scales and larger areas that encompass every aspect of the system.
“Nature tends to take the long view and people tend to take the short,” says Dr. Deegan. “So if you can stick with it for the long view, I think you see things in a very different way.”
Arctic wetlands are known emitters of the strong greenhouse gas methane. Well-drained soils, on the other hand, remove methane from the atmosphere. In the Arctic and boreal biomes, well-drained upland soils cover more than 80% of the land area, but their potential importance for drawing methane from the atmosphere—the underlying mechanisms, environmental controls and even the magnitude of methane uptake—have not been well understood.
A recent study led by researchers from the University of Eastern Finland and University of Montreal, in collaboration with Woodwell Climate Research Scientist, Dr. Anna Virkkala, has expanded our understanding of these dynamics, finding that Arctic soil methane uptake may be larger than previously thought. The results show uptake increasing under dry conditions and with availability of a type of soil organic carbon that can be used in microbial uptake processes.
The study was primarily conducted at Trail Valley Creek, a tundra site in the Western Canadian Arctic. The authors used a unique experimental set-up consisting of 18 automated chambers for continuous measurements of methane fluxes. No other automated chamber system exists this far North in the Canadian Arctic, and only few exist above the Arctic circle globally, most of which are installed at methane-emitting sites.
The high-resolution measurements of methane uptake (more than 40,000 flux measurements) revealed previously unknown daily and seasonal dynamics: while methane uptake in early and peak summer was largest during the afternoons, coinciding with maximum soil temperature, uptake during late summer peaked during the night. The study shows that the strongest methane uptake coincided with peaks of ecosystem carbon dioxide respiration—meaning that as methane is removed from the atmosphere, carbon dioxide production in the soil is high. Complementing flux measurements at Trail Valley Creek with measurements at other sites spread across the Canadian and Finnish Arctic showed that the availability of soil organic carbon and other nutrients may promote methane consumption in Arctic soils.
“The methane cycle has previously been primarily studied in wetlands because of their high methane emissions, but this study shows that drier ecosystems are also very important in the methane cycle,” says Dr. Virkkala.
These findings are highly relevant for estimating the current Arctic carbon budget, and for predicting the future response of Arctic soil methane uptake to a changing climate. According to the study, high-latitude warming itself, occurring up to four times faster in the Arctic than the rest of the world, will promote atmospheric methane uptake to a lesser extent than the associated large-scale drying.
“The Arctic methane budget has remained highly uncertain,” remarks the paper’s lead author, Dr. Carolina Voigt. “Our research provides one potential mechanism that might explain those uncertainties, and highlights the importance of methane measurements in drier ecosystems to calculate more accurate methane budgets.”
Climate change is having profound effects on the chemical composition of large Arctic rivers, signaling changes both on land and in the coastal ocean, according to new international research examining chemical signatures in rivers across Canada, Alaska and Russia.
The study, the result of a two-decade effort by the Arctic Great Rivers Observatory, analyzed nearly twenty years of water chemistry and discharge data collected from six rivers that comprise 60 percent of the Arctic Ocean watershed.
The researchers tracked river water ions, key nutrients, and dissolved organic carbon, among other indicators. They found that chemical concentrations changed substantially over the past two decades, but trends across chemical groups were different, with some increasing, some decreasing, and others showing little change.
The international scientific collaboration tracked river water ions, key nutrients and dissolved organic carbon among other metrics. Chemical concentrations changed substantially over the past two decades, but trends across chemical groups were different with some increasing, some decreasing, and some showing little change.
“The only way that this divergence in trends is possible is if multiple factors of change are being brought to bear on the Arctic system at the same time,” says Woodwell Research Assistant, Anya Suslova and co-author on the paper. “We know that permafrost is thawing, vegetation is changing and moving northward, and processing of nutrients and organic matter may be happening more quickly. Global climate change appears to be causing many systems that are critical for ecosystem function to change at the same time—and that change is showing up in the chemical composition of river water.”
Key nutrients observed in river water are declining, according to the study. This trend suggests warming temperatures are increasing biological uptake of nutrients on land or in aquatic ecosystems, leading to an overall decrease despite factors like wildfire and permafrost thaw releasing more nutrients into the waterways.
ArcticGRO represents a partnership between researchers at Woodwell Climate Research Center, University of Alberta, the Marine Biological Laboratory, Florida State University, and the University of New Hampshire, as well as scientific and community collaborators in Siberia and the North American Arctic.
“The success of this study is largely due to its collaborative nature,” says Dr. Max Holmes, Woodwell Climate President and CEO, and founder of the ArcticGRO project. “Without the dedication of scientists and community members across the Arctic, we never would have been able to generate the comprehensive dataset that allowed us to uncover these insights.”
Because trends in river water chemistry are not always acting in the same direction, Dr. Holmes and Suslova say the study will help give scientists a blueprint for thinking about how Arctic change will play out.
When boreal forests burn in the Far North of the U.S. and Canada, the whole world feels the impact. From communities evacuating from the blazes, to smoke clogging the air thousands of miles to the south, to the release of carbon emissions that accelerate climate change, boreal forest fires are a global issue.
Research from Woodwell Climate has recently expanded our understanding of the scope of impact that boreal fires have. A new paper, led by Research Associate Stefano Potter, quantified emissions associated with fires across most of boreal North America, shedding light on the dynamics of boreal fires and climate change. These four graphics explain:
Using a new higher-resolution dataset, generated as part of NASA’s Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE), Potter and his co-authors created a map of burned area across the boreal region. The researchers combined satellite imagery with observations from the largest database of boreal field studies, which allowed them to calculate emissions from both vegetation burned aboveground, and organic matter in the soils that burned belowground.
The results show that the overwhelming majority of carbon emissions from boreal fires—over 80% of total emissions in most places—comes from soils rather than trees. Despite the dramatic imagery of burning forests, most of the real damage is happening below the ground.
That finding on its own was not surprising to researchers, as the majority of carbon in boreal forests is stored below the ground. However, the fact that the overwhelming contribution of belowground carbon to fire emissions is being left out of existing global fire and climate models, means we’re drastically underestimating carbon emissions from Arctic and Boreal environments.
“A large reason for that is because the [existing] models are not detecting the belowground carbon combustion, which we are modeling directly,” says Potter.
Potter and the team working on the paper were able to accurately model belowground carbon loss because of their machine learning approach and the abundance of available field measurements in their dataset.
Accurately representing these numbers in global fire models is critical, because these models are used to plot climate trajectories and inform carbon budgets, which tell us how much we need to cut emissions to stay below temperature thresholds like 1.5 or 2 degrees C.
It is becoming more urgent to get an accurate understanding of boreal emissions, because boreal fires are becoming larger, more frequent and more intense. Burned area has increased as fire seasons stretch longer, return intervals between fires shorten, and single ignitions can result in massive blazes that burn further and deeper and cause greater carbon loss.
In 2023, for example, while the number of ignitions has been lower than most years since the 1990s, burned area as of August has far surpassed any year in the past three decades.
Ultimately, preventing carbon loss from boreal forest fires will require bringing down emissions from other sources and curbing warming to get fires back within historical levels. But preventing boreal forests from burning in the short term can offer a climate solution that could buy time to reduce other emissions.
A collaborative study between Woodwell Climate and the Union of Concerned Scientists, published in Science Advances, modeled the cost effectiveness of deploying fire suppression in boreal North America and found that actively combatting boreal fires could cost as little as 13 dollars per ton of CO2 emissions avoided—a cost on par with other carbon mitigation solutions like onshore wind or utility-scale solar. Informed by this data, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has decided to start combating fires in Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge, not only when they present a threat to human health, but also with the intent of preventing significant carbon losses. Yukon Flats is underlain by large swaths of carbon-rich permafrost soils, at risk of thawing and combusting in deep-burning fires.
Deepening our understanding of the complex boreal system with further research will help inform additional strategies for bringing emissions under control, preventing devastating fires that threaten human health both regionally, and across the globe.
Summit County, Utah is preparing for a changing climate.
The high-elevation county boasts a strong winter sports economy, vast swaths of national forest and agricultural land, and a population of 43,000 people that stand to be affected by climate-driven changes. The risks to the county’s health and economy from climate change were outlined in a recent report by Woodwell Climate, and shared with the community through the first in a series of climate change and public health panels.
The risk assessment was completed as a part of the Center’s Just Access initiative to provide free climate risk insights to municipalities across the globe, in order to equip them for the changes ahead. Working with members of Summit County’s Sustainability Department, as well as members of the community at large, the Woodwell team targeted three major climate risk variables for analysis— drought, water scarcity, and wildfire.
According to Emily Quinton, Sustainability Program Manager for Summit County, these risks are ones the county is already concerned about, based on existing conditions, but wanted to know what that would mean for them in coming decades.
“We have some good baseline knowledge about the risks we are facing already,” Quinton said. “What was different and new that the Woodwell assessment could offer was those much longer-term future projections.”
In Summit County, the Sustainability Department is a subset of the Public Health Department, which encouraged the risk assessment to delve into the ways in which climate risks affect the health of county residents. Changes in water availability were a particular concern for the department.
The report found that the northern and easternmost portions of the county are most likely to be affected by drought. Summit County is already experiencing severe drought conditions 40% of the year; that number is expected to increase to 50% by midcentury.
Water scarcity will also increase. Driven by both increasing demand from the population and decreasing availability, water scarcity in most communities within Summit County is expected to be at 189% by 2030— meaning demand will be nearly twice that of available supply.
“With the drought and water scarcity topics,” said Quinton, “making the connection between how a decrease in water quantity will place risk on water quality was important. Monitoring water quality is a really crucial responsibility of the Public Health Department.”
Woodwell Research Assistant, Darcy Glenn, who worked previously in Summit County’s Sustainability Department and helped facilitate the production of the report says, “If you don’t have any water in your wells, water quality goes down because you don’t have enough to dilute any contaminant that might be a problem.”
Summit County currently grapples with wildfire threat as well. Wildfire danger days— in which temperature and moisture conditions make fires more likely to burn out of control— will become a more common occurrence, leading to fires that cause more evacuations, damage, and air quality concerns. The majority of the county will add eight or more wildfire danger days to their year by the end of the century.
Public health can be a less polarizing context in which to discuss climate risks publicly. Despite the political nature surrounding climate change in some regions, Glenn notes public health can serve as a lens most people relate to and take seriously.
“It can be hit or miss on climate change, but if your kid has asthma, you want to know about your air quality. Changes in the environment, whether people acknowledge climate change or not, align with things they’ve seen,” says Glenn. “So we’re trying to approach the topic in a way that’s accessible and start a conversation that’s welcoming to the whole community.”
After the completion of the assessment, Woodwell Risk team members presented the information to the Summit County Board of Health, then opened up communications with the public. In May, the county’s Health Department hosted the first of three planned events in a speaker series, focused on sharing the results of the report to help county residents better understand the extent of risk where they live. Glenn spoke alongside local climate experts and took questions from attendees.
The next two events in the series will discuss the physical and mental health impacts of climate change, as well as some potential adaptation solutions. According to Quinton, these events will aid the county in developing plans for resilience that address the top concerns of the public.
“Climate preparedness can’t happen without an understanding of what the potential risks are. The Climate Risk Assessment and the public events feel like important steps to more directly integrate climate change into the preparedness work Summit County is already doing,” says Quinton.
Woodwell Senior Scientist Dr. Rich Birdsey has contributed his decades-long expertise in forestry and climate issues to two new U.S.-based forest policy initiatives. Working on both the state and federal level, Dr. Birdsey is helping to expand the influence of science in policy planning.
On July 20, Woodwell Climate submitted a response to the U.S. Forest Service’s request for public input into how they can adapt current policies and develop new ones to support the conservation of the country’s forests and increase their resilience in the face of climate change. The push for new rulemaking within the agency is a direct response to President Biden’s recent executive order: Strengthening the Nation’s Forests, Communities, and Local Economies.
Protecting forests is a crucial emissions mitigation strategy both within the US and globally. Forests, particularly mature and old-growth stands, contain centuries-worth of stored carbon and continue to sequester more each year. Loss of these precious forests releases stored carbon and reduces future carbon sequestration.
In the public comment, Dr. Birdsey, who led the drafting effort, emphasizes the importance of protecting mature and old-growth forests, stating, “When climate benefits are explicitly considered, the research points strongly to letting these forests grow—protecting and expanding the massive portion of sequestered carbon they represent. One of the largest threats facing mature and old-growth forests in the US is logging, which is a threat that humans can reduce instantly, simply by changing policy.”
Dr. Birdsey has also been named a scientific expert on a committee charged with helping draft Massachusetts’ forest policies. A new state initiative, called “Forests as Climate Solutions” looks to expand existing forest conservation activities and develop new forest management guidelines that can help Massachusetts meet its climate goal of achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The science committee will be responsible for providing input into the state’s proposals and assessing their effectiveness as climate solutions.
“Forests have to be at the forefront of our climate strategy,” said Massachusetts Climate Chief Melissa Hoffer. “Trees can sequester carbon for centuries—we have a responsibility to use the best science to ensure that their potential for carbon sequestration and storage is reflected in our approach.
Dr. Birdsey’s hope is that the policies developed by the new initiative will help Massachusetts take full advantage of its naturally carbon-rich forests.
“Massachusetts forests have some of the highest carbon stocks in the Eastern U.S., and I hope that policies enacted through this initiative will strengthen protection of older forests and large trees and foster management of younger forests to attain old-growth characteristics, while maintaining the current level of timber supplies,” says Dr. Birdsey.
Both policy initiatives present an important opportunity to set forest management on the right track towards achieving emissions reductions in years to come.
“Massachusetts’ forests have the potential to accumulate and store enough additional carbon to compensate for as much as 10% of the State’s current emissions from burning fossil fuels,” says Dr. Birdsey. “With climate-smart forests, Massachusetts can be a national climate leader.”