They keep us cool, we cut them down

Standing forests are our best natural climate solution. So why aren’t we treating them that way?

In terms of climate mitigation, forests are like green gold—working overtime to cool the planet, while also supporting a wealth of biodiversity. But we have not been saving them as one would a precious asset. Despite pledges to end deforestation, old growth forests are being cut down at alarming rates. And planting new trees is widely prioritized and incentivized over protecting existing forests. Across the board, standing forests are vastly undervalued. This has to change if we are to stand a chance of limiting warming to internationally agreed targets.

Forests are global air conditioners

According to a recent study from scientists at Woodwell and the University of Virginia, tropical forests alone are holding back approximately 1 degree Celsius of warming. About 75% of that cooling effect is due to carbon sequestration. Forests grow, trees lock away carbon in their trunks and roots and shunt it into the soil. The other 25% comes from the innate properties of forests that work to cool vast regions of the globe.

Through photosynthesis, plants release water vapor into the air in a process called evapotranspiration. The vapor contributes to cooling near the ground, as well as cloud formation higher in the atmosphere that reduces incoming solar radiation. The shape of the tree canopy also contributes. So-called canopy “roughness” disrupts air flow above the forest. The more uneven the canopy, the more turbulent the air, which disperses heat away from the surface. In the tropics, evapotranspiration and canopy roughness are high, which means that surface temperatures remain relatively low, with the heat dispersed throughout the deep atmosphere.

Forests also naturally produce molecules called biogenic volatile organic compounds (BVOC), which can either contribute to cooling by encouraging the formation of clouds, or to warming by creating ozone and methane. In the tropics, the net effect of these chemicals is cooling.

The cumulative result of these properties is that when forests are removed, the land around them begins to heat up even faster, which can increase the frequency of extreme heat and drought events. Without forests, some regions will become a lot less resilient to sudden shocks. And the release of carbon contributes to global warming which further exacerbates hot, dry conditions.

“Forests act like air conditioners,” says Woodwell Assistant Scientist, Dr. Ludmila Rattis, who studies the impacts of deforestation on agriculture in Brazil. “Deforesting in the face of climate change is like getting rid of your air conditioners before an upcoming heatwave.”

Not all forests are created equally

Protecting forests, and maintaining the cooling services they provide, is vital to limiting warming. But, with forests covering 30% of the Earth’s land, prioritizing protection is a massive task. And when it comes to carbon storage, not all forests are equally valuable. Older, healthier forests tend to have a more secure hold on their carbon.

“Mature forests have higher biodiversity and create their own microclimate,” says Woodwell Associate Scientist, Brendan Rogers. “They’re more resistant to drought and other types of disturbance. And because of that, they tend to be more stable in the face of environmental perturbations over time.”

New research from Woodwell and Griffith University has developed a method of identifying high-value forests using satellite imagery. Estimating the metric of “forest stability” through satellite data on the light reflected by vegetation and a water stress index of the tree canopy, researchers were able to determine gradients of stability within forest patches in the Amazon and boreal forests.

Using a gradient of forest stability allows for a better prioritization of forest protection strategies based on their carbon value.

“The first priority is to protect stable forests from further human disturbance,” says paper co-author Dr. Brendan Mackey. “The second priority is to identify forest areas where restoration efforts will be most cost effective.”

Guarding the forests that guard our future

But if the state of existing forests is any indication, forest protection continues to be deprioritized. Many wildfires are left to burn unless they threaten human settlements. Governments continue to incentivize deforestation for development or agricultural expansion. Indigenous and local communities are not compensated for their work stewarding their territories and keeping forests safe. And the warmer the planet gets, the more susceptible even protected forests become to drought, fire, and disease.

Research has shown that stewarding standing primary forests, and reviving degraded ones, represents the greatest opportunity for near-term carbon storage and removal. A study of global land-based carbon storage potential found that improved management of existing forests alone could store approximately 215 billion metric tons more than they currently do.

Protecting forests is cost effective, too. For example, in the United States, investing in fire fighting in Alaska’s boreal forests would require just $13 per ton of CO2 emissions avoided. That’s easily on par with other mitigation strategies like onshore wind or solar energy generation.

Effective strategies for protecting forests already exist, they’ve just been suffering from a lack of force—and often funding—behind their implementation. For example, forest carbon markets—where landowners and forest stewards are paid to protect standing forests that are otherwise vulnerable to deforestation—have the potential to keep forests safe while offsetting emissions from other sectors. But nascent carbon markets are inefficient, with weak standards for verifying the quality of credits being sold, and lacking the transparency needed to ensure credits are actually reducing overall emissions, rather than greenwashing carbon-intensive business practices.

Credits are also priced incorrectly for their relative climate value—the market currently values reforestation credits more highly, reducing incentive for landowners to conserve standing, old-growth forests when there is a better livelihood to be made in legally deforesting land for  other uses. A truly effective carbon markets system would require large investments in science that can verify credit standards.

Forests are like our global carbon savings accounts—when we cut them down, we’re drawing out money and limiting our ability to collect interest and keep growing our funds. Successful mitigation can’t be accomplished without taking the full value of forests into account and strengthening policies to reflect that. If they aren’t, the planet will pay a far greater price for it as temperatures rise.

“We can’t afford to keep cutting forests. We need to reduce emissions now, and protecting forests is one of our best available solutions. Despite the obstacles, it’s worth the investment,” says Dr. Rogers.

Haydee Hernandez-Yanez and Coleen smith measure carbon flux

Peterson Farm soil carbon ‘fieldwork’ for Opalite Media filming
June 2022

Nature-based climate solutions like reforestation, climate-smart agriculture, and wetland restoration harness natural processes to reduce greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere and slow climate change. These approaches have substantial and growing support from bipartisan lawmakers, the private sector, and conservation-minded NGOs, but scientific tools to guide implementation and to accurately monitor outcomes are not adequately developed.

To confront that uncertainty and put nature-based climate solutions on a sound scientific footing, several dozen scientists and policy experts gathered in Washington D.C. in June of this year for a workshop sponsored by Indiana University, the U.S. Department of Energy, and the U.S. Carbon Cycle Science Program. The resulting white paper report reviews the current state of knowledge in this field, and describes the necessary research and technology investments to support effective mitigation policy.

According to the report’s lead author, Dr. Kim Novick from the Paul H. O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University, “Nature-based climate solutions can play an important role in slowing the pace of climate change, but only if they are pursued alongside economy-wide decarbonization and guided by the best-available science.”

The white paper authors identify critical gaps in the science needed to support large-scale implementation of nature-based climate solutions and lay out a research agenda to fill these gaps. They also outline a set of principles that should guide future assessments of the effectiveness and viability of nature-based climate solutions. The result is a road map for producing information that will foster successful programs and policies—while avoiding energy wasted on those that do not.

Woodwell Senior Scientist, Dr. Jonathan Sanderman attended the gathering in June and contributed to the development of the paper.

“We’re at a unique moment in U.S. climate policy where the hard work of the research science community can be directly and immediately leveraged to help the U.S. fight climate change and become a world leader in implementing nature-based climate solutions.”

The report calls for a ~$1 billion (USD) coordinated investment in a national nature-based climate solution “Information Network” organized around coordinated ground-based experiments and monitoring that can inform rigorously benchmarked maps, model predictions, and protocol evaluations.

According to Dr. Benjamin Runkle, another report co-author and associate professor in the College of Engineering at the University of Arkansas: “Although the investment necessary to generate this information is not small, it is a fraction of the amount already allocated to implementation of nature-based solutions. Investing in sound science to predict, monitor, and verify the benefits of these strategies is fundamental to ensuring their success.”

In addition to their potential to stave off climate change, nature-based solutions also have a range of other benefits, including improving air and water quality,  promoting biodiversity, and providing economic opportunities. Many can also help communities adapt to a changing climate and improve resilience of agricultural and food systems.

“There is broad-scale agreement that many nature-based climate solutions benefit people and the environment through co-benefits,” said Dr. Emily Oldfield, a report co-author and agricultural soil carbon scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund. “We should push to incentivize those practices using a wide range of policy tools, while acknowledging there is no one-size-fits-all approach to ecosystem-based climate solutions.”

What can be done about permafrost thaw?

Monitor, model, and make sure Arctic communities have the support they need

With the Arctic warming 3 to 4 times faster than the rest of the world, permafrost thaw has become a significant climate threat. Scientists estimate that permafrost contains 1.4 trillion tonnes of carbon, an amount more than double what is currently in the Earth’s atmosphere. That carbon sink is stable as long as it stays frozen, but with recent and projected thaw, the organic matter in permafrost is breaking down and releasing carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, increasing the rate of climate change.

What we’re doing

Addressing this issue requires extensive data collection on permafrost emissions, as well as equitable strategies for adaptation by Arctic communities. To tackle this issue, Woodwell has partnered with the Arctic Initiative at Harvard Kennedy School, the Alaska Institute for Justice, and the Alaska Native Science Commission to connect experts in climate science, human rights, and public policy with frontline communities and high-level decision makers. The partnership is pioneering a six-year research program called Permafrost Pathways that will develop action plans to address the compounding impacts of permafrost thaw.

With the understanding that this needs to be a sustainable process with long-term impact, Permafrost Pathways’ scientists are expanding and coordinating a pan-Arctic carbon monitoring network to improve the accuracy of permafrost thaw emissions estimates. More precise measurements will fill critical data gaps and reduce uncertainties, so that permafrost emissions can be factored into global carbon budgets, climate models, targets, and measures for mitigation and adaptation. That, combined with high-resolution satellite and aircraft-based observations and advanced computer modeling, will allow for tracking the changing landscape in near real-time and more accurately projecting future emissions.

Permafrost Pathways is also collaborating with local communities to co-create Indigenous-led adaptation strategies. For many, relocation or infrastructure upgrades are needed urgently, but there is currently no process or resources to enable communities to move forward. With Arctic residents already feeling the brunt of climate change, the involvement of frontline communities is crucial in developing successful adaptation plans and effective policies.

What’s left to be done

Despite its big strides, Permafrost Pathways is still in its infancy and there is a long road ahead when it comes to tackling the complexity of permafrost thaw. Today, at least 192 countries, plus the European Union, have signed on to the Paris Agreement’s promise of reducing emissions to keep warming below 2 degrees C. But many emissions reduction goals do not include carbon released by permafrost thaw. The international community needs to take strong action to change this or else permafrost thaw could undermine climate goals.

In the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2021 report, permafrost thaw was named as an issue that should be included in carbon budgets and global reduction schedules, but often isn’t because there is not enough data on its climate impact. Continued support of data gathering programs like Permafrost Pathways will provide the international community, top country-level climate negotiators, and environmental ministers the knowledge needed to fix that oversight and start filling gaps.

In Arctic communities, permafrost thaw is already causing disasters like flooding, coastal erosion, and infrastructure damage. To combat this, national and international policy makers need to act now to integrate permafrost thaw into disaster policies and community-led adaptation frameworks. This will create clear planning and response procedures for future permafrost-related issues.

What you can do

Permafrost thaw is an issue that affects everyone. Understanding the local and global implications and sharing that information within immediate social circles as well as on social media platforms can help start conversations that spur action. The public also has the power to influence the development of climate policies by pressuring elected officials to tackle this serious issue.>

 

For more information about the issues surrounding permafrost thaw, read part one and part two in our Permafrost series. To stay informed and get involved, visit the Permafrost Pathways site.

The critical missing expense in global climate budgets

A major emitter is being left out of the global climate budget, and Arctic communities are already feeling the impacts

A 2022 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report confirms that the Earth is on track to warm 1.5 degrees celsius by 2040. Warming beyond this will cause global issues like struggling coral reefs, catastrophic storms, and extreme heat waves. The international community has developed a global carbon budget that tracks how much carbon can be added to the atmosphere by human-caused emissions before we push warming past 1.5 and even 2 degrees. It functions much like a household budget— where spending more than you earn can jeopardize your stability and comfort.

With the carbon budget, that means balancing how much carbon is released into the atmosphere with how much is being stored by natural sinks. According to the IPCC, the world needs to wean itself off of “spending” down that budget as we rapidly approach 2 degrees of warming.

Permafrost is missing from the budget

But IPCC’s budget calculations aren’t factoring in a major source of emissions—permafrost thaw. Massive amounts of carbon are stored in frozen Arctic soils known as permafrost. As permafrost thaws, that carbon is released into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide and methane. Scientists estimate that emissions from permafrost thaw will range from 30 to 150 billion tons this century.

Despite being on par with top-emitting countries like India or the United States, permafrost thaw is not included in the global carbon budget. It has historically been excluded because of gaps in data that make existing estimates of emissions less precise. Dr. Max Holmes, President of Woodwell Climate Research Center, says it’s “especially alarming… that permafrost carbon is largely ignored in current climate change models.” That’s because permafrost thaw emissions could take up 25-40% of our remaining emissions budgeted to cap warming at 2°C. Imagine leaving the cost of rent out of your household budget. It doesn’t mean you don’t have to pay it, it just means you won’t be prepared when that bill arrives.

Excluding permafrost thaw also means that projections of the rate of warming will be off. The unaccounted carbon will speed up warming, reducing the amount of time we have to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

Permafrost thaw is already negatively impacting Arctic residents, especially Indigenous communities. In 2019, a Yup’ik community  that has lived in Newtok, Alaska for hundreds of years had to begin moving to higher, volcanic ground because the thawing permafrost under their town was causing disastrous floods and sinking infrastructure. Woodwell Arctic program director and senior scientist, Dr. Sue Natali, who studies permafrost thaw in Yup’ik territory, says “it’s a place where permafrost is on the brink of thawing, and will be thawed by the end of the century, if not much sooner.”

Since permafrost spans multiple countries, it has been difficult to determine who should take responsibility for it. Consequently, there is currently little government framework for adaptation. The Yup’ik people had to reach out to a variety of government agencies and lived without plumbing for decades before the federal government finally awarded them support for relocation. The community paid a heavy price for it, though. Without proper policy in place to manage climate relocation, they had to bargain for government assistance, and in the end, turned ownership of the land they were leaving over to the U.S. government.

It took sixteen years from when Congress agreed to assist the Yup’ik community to when their promises were put into action. While scientists, like the ones spearheading Woodwell’s Permafrost Pathways program, are monitoring and modeling thaw to better prepare people for the damage it can cause, vulnerable communities do not have sixteen years to wait for assistance and relocation.

If permafrost thaw continues to be overlooked by government agencies, then it will remain difficult to prevent the Earth from warming beyond 2ºC and to support frontline communities most affected by it. Tackling permafrost thaw for both Arctic communities and the planet will require a coordinated international effort.

Looking for some background on Permafrost? Read the first piece in our permafrost series: “What is Permafrost?” To learn about what must be done to combat this issue, read part three: “What can be done about permafrost thaw?”

What is permafrost?

Centuries-old frozen soil is under threat from rapid warming

Thinking about climate change usually brings to mind dramatically melting ice caps and rising sea levels, but there’s another threat that’s caught the attention of climate scientists for its potential to be equally as disastrous—thawing permafrost.

Located anywhere between a few centimeters to 4,900ft below the Earth’s surface, permafrost is soil composed of sand, gravel, organic matter, and ice that has been frozen for at least two consecutive years. Some has been frozen for centuries or even millenia, and it’s this ancient permafrost in the Arctic that holds the greatest significance for climate change.

Arctic permafrost stretches across Alaska, Scandinavia, Russia, Iceland, and Canada, and can be found beneath the Arctic Ocean, the Arctic tundra, alpine forests, and boreal forests. It covers 15% of the land in the Northern Hemisphere and 3.6 million people live atop it. Scientists estimate that Arctic permafrost contains 1.4 trillion tonnes of carbon, an amount more than double what is currently in the Earth’s atmosphere. That carbon sink is stable as long as it stays frozen, but when it thaws, soil microbes break down the organic matter in permafrost and release carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, increasing the rate of climate change.

In many places, forests, plants, and peat act as protective insulation for Arctic permafrost. This insulation helps keep carbon-storing organic matter, like plants and animals, as well as bacteria and archaea, frozen in the permafrost. However, climate change is already causing the Arctic to warm three to four times faster than the rest of the planet.

In addition to rapid warming speeding decay, it also strips back permafrost’s protective layers with increasing fires and heavy summer rains that burn and erode away top soil layers, further accelerating thaw. In some places, permafrost thaws so abruptly that the ground can collapse. Developing infrastructure that requires deforestation and underground pipes further exposes permafrost to warming. Additionally, as sea ice melts, coastal Arctic permafrost is exposed to warmer waters. The combined result is extensive permafrost thaw across the region.

Researchers have been studying permafrost thaw to determine the size of the threat it poses. Methods such as placing soil moisture sensors in strategic locations and examining soil cores collected by drilling holes into the soil to document the different layers of permafrost help gauge the rate and extent of thaw.

In a recent TEDTalk, Dr. Sue Natali, Woodwell’s Arctic program director and senior scientist, cautioned that, “By the end of this century, greenhouse gas emissions from thawing permafrost may be on par with some of the world’s leading greenhouse-gas-emitting nations.”

There are already visible signs of vast permafrost thaw in the Arctic. Since ice is an essential part of the ground’s structural integrity, the soil becomes unstable when it thaws. This leads to dangerous situations like landslides, sinkholes, and destabilized infrastructure that threaten millions of people. Remote communities are particularly impacted, losing access to roads and sources of freshwater.

For both the carbon it threatens to release, and the destabilizing impacts it has on Arctic residents, permafrost thaw is a serious threat. One that, as the Arctic continues to warm, demands urgent attention and remediation.

Until now, that attention has been slow in coming. Read about why combatting permafrost thaw is such a complex issue in part two of our Permafrost series: “The critical missing expense in global climate budgets.”

What’s New?

A recent paper offers new insight into the state of global forests. Using remote sensing imagery from MODIS satellites, researchers were able to categorize forest condition in two important biomes—the Amazon and the Siberian Taiga—differentiating between high stability, low stability, and non-forested areas. These “stability classes” provide another metric of assessing the conservation and carbon value of land, as high stability forests tend to be healthier, more resilient, primary forest stands that store large amounts of carbon and contribute to cooling the planet more than lower stability forests.

“Mature forests have higher biodiversity and create their own microclimate,” says paper co-author and Woodwell Associate Scientist, Brendan Rogers. “They’re more resistant to drought and other types of disturbance. And then because of that, they tend to be more stable in the face of environmental perturbations over time.”

Understanding forest stability

To estimate forest stability, researchers analyzed satellite data that combined measures of photosynthetic radiation with a canopy water stress index. That new approach was able to identify whether or not a forest has been disturbed by either human land use (ex. logging) or natural processes (wildfire, insects outbreaks, etc.) and map the degradation level.

Co-author Dr. Brendan Mackey from Griffith University in Australia says that stability mapping is a first critical step in making an inventory of the world’s remaining primary forests which store more carbon, support the most biodiversity, and deliver the cleanest water. 

According to Dr. Rogers, the less interruption in the ecological processes of the forest, the more secure the carbon stored in both the trees and soils are. Further human interference in an unstable forest could tip it into decline. 

“I think one of the problems for primary forest conservation globally has been this idea that it’s either a forest or not a forest. So, internationally agreed upon definitions of what constitutes a forest sets a pretty low bar. You can get away with calling a plantation with very young trees a forest, but that could have been converted from a high biomass mature forest, and they’re simply not the same—not in terms of carbon, biodiversity, or ecosystem services,” says Dr. Rogers.

What this means for forest conservation

Using a gradient of forest stability instead of a black and white definition of forest/not-forest allows for more nuanced decision-making where both carbon monitoring and conservation planning are concerned.

“The first priority is to protect stable forests from further human disturbance, as once an area is deforested, it takes decades to centuries—and in some cases millenia—for it to regrow to a primary state. The second priority is to identify forest areas where restoration efforts will be most cost effective,” says Dr. Mackey.

According to the paper’s lead author, Dr. Tatiana Shestakova, this means places where a small investment could have bigger positive results.

“If you pick a forest that was degraded in some way, but it still keeps patches of more or less healthy forests, you can reinstate ecological processes faster and easier,” says Dr. Shestakova.

Dr. Shestakova said she encourages other researchers to apply the methods to their particular regions of expertise and expand estimates of forest stability globally.

“The benefit of this approach is that it was tested in such contrasting ecoregions, and has been proven to be a simple and efficient way to assess this important dimension of forest condition,” says Dr. Shestakova.

oncoming storm front
A sudden flip in weather conditions—from a long hot and dry period to a parade of storms, for example, or from abnormally mild winter temperatures to extreme cold—can cause major disruptions to human activities, energy supplies, agriculture, and ecosystems. These shifts, dubbed “weather whiplash” events, are challenging to measure and define because of a lack of consistent definition. A new study demonstrates an approach to measuring the frequency of these events based on rapid changes in continent-wide weather regimes.

The study indicates that, while the frequency of whiplash events in recent decades has not changed substantially, future model projections indicate increases will occur as the globe continues to warm under a thicker blanket of greenhouse gasses. In particular, the researchers find whiplash will increase most during times when the Arctic is abnormally warm, and decrease when the Arctic is in a cold regime—something that will occur less often as the planet warms.

Examples of weather whiplash during 2022 so far include a long, hot, drought in western U.S. states during early summer that was broken by record-breaking flash flooding; exceptionally wet and cool conditions during June in the Pacific Northwest replaced by a heat wave in July; a record-warm early winter for most south-central states followed by a cooler-than-average January and February; and a spell of 67 consecutive hot, dry days in Dallas, TX, broken by the heaviest rains in a century.

“The spring and summer of 2022 have been plagued by weather whiplash events,” said lead author, Dr. Jennifer Francis, Senior Scientist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center. “A warming planet increases the likelihood of longer, more intense droughts and heat waves, and we’re also seeing these spells broken suddenly by heavy bouts of precipitation, which are also fueled by the climate crisis. These sudden shifts are highly disruptive to all sorts of human activities and wildlife, and our study indicates they’ll occur more frequently as we continue to burn fossil fuels and clear-cut forests, causing greenhouse gas concentrations to rise further.”

Co-author Judah Cohen, Principal Scientist at Verisk AER noted that these phenomena are tightly linked to regional warming in the Arctic.

“We know the Arctic region is experiencing the most rapid changes in the global climate system. Evidence is growing that these profound changes are contributing to more extreme weather events outside the Arctic, and this influence will only increase in the future,” said Dr. Cohen.