Despite facing regional threats like deforestation and wildfires, the world’s forests continue to be a powerful weapon in the fight against climate change. A new study reveals these vital ecosystems have consistently absorbed carbon dioxide for the past three decades, even as disruptions chip away at their capacity. The study, based on long-term ground measurements combined with remote sensing data, found that forests take up an average of 3.5 ± 0.4 billion metric tons of carbon per year, which is nearly half of the carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels between 1990 and 2019. 

The study titled “The enduring world forest carbon sink,” published in the June issue of the journal Nature, highlights the critical role of forests in mitigating climate change. The study further shows that deforestation and disturbances like wildfires are threatening this vital carbon sink. 

The research is co-led by U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service Northern Research Station Senior Research Scientist Yude Pan and Woodwell Climate Senior Scientist Richard Birdsey, and includes 15 additional co-authors from 11 countries. 

Some of the key findings include:

“Our research team analyzed data from millions of forest plots around the globe,” Pan explained. “What sets this study apart is its foundation in extensive ground measurements – essentially, a tree-by-tree assessment of size, species, and biomass. While the study also incorporates remote sensing data, a common tool in national forest inventories and landsurveys, our unique strength lies in the detailed on-the-ground data collection.”

“The persistence of the global forest carbon sink was a surprise given global increases in wildfire, drought, logging, and other stressors,” according to Birdsey. “But it turns out that increasing emissions in some regions were balanced by increasing accumulation in other regions, mainly re-growing tropical forests and reforestation of temperate forests. These findings support the potential for improving protection and management of forests as effective natural climate solutions.”

The study describes how certain land management policies and practices can help preserve this global carbon sink. According to co-author Professor Oliver Phillips from the University of Leeds, who coordinates the pan-tropical ForestPlots.net coalition of scientists supporting key networks such as AfriTRON and RAINFOR, “the extraordinary persistence of the carbon sink shows that forests have mostly coped with climate change, so far. Deforestation, fire, and logging are damaging forests everywhere, but drought less so. Helping Earth’s forests resist climate change will mean keeping them as intact, healthy and vibrant ecosystems.”

Findings support a focus on curtailing deforestation across all forest biomes, for example, promoting forest restoration on lands that may be unsuitable for agriculture, and improving timber harvesting practices to minimize emissions from logging and related activities. The research also highlights the limitations in data collection, particularly in tropical regions. The study calls for increased research and establishment of more ground sampling plots in these areas to reduce uncertainties in carbon estimates and improve understanding of the global carbon budget.

On May 18th, Morris Alexie, Permafrost Pathways Tribal Liaison for the Alaska Native Village of Nunapicuaq (Nunapitchuk), traveled for three days to South America to join EarthRights International and other Indigenous leaders from around the world at the Public Hearing on the Advisory Opinion on Climate Emergency and Human Rights.

Read more on Permafrost Pathways

What are ice wedges, and why are they important to climate change?

“I think ice wedges are what make permafrost interesting,” says Dr. Anna Liljedahl. 

Liljedahl works on Woodwell Climate’s Arctic team as an Associate Scientist. She aims to understand how climate change is affecting water storage and movement. Much of her recent work focuses on ice wedges and how they are reacting to warming Arctic summers. But just what are ice wedges anyway?

Ice wedges are one of the three main features of the Arctic’s land surface. Permafrost, ground that remains below 0˚C for at least two consecutive summers, lies under a thinner layer of thawing and refreezing soil, called the active layer. When permafrost cracks during cold winter days, snowmelt and runoff water seep into the empty space. These eventually freeze and create a wedge-shaped spear of ice that extends vertically down into the permafrost.

Ice wedges actively re-shape the tundra. When they freeze, they grow and expand outward, pushing against the bordering permafrost and active layer. With nowhere else to go, permafrost and soil push upwards, and ridges form on the surface of the tundra. The ridges interlock and form distinct shapes, referred to as ice-wedge polygons. 

The ridged borders of ice-wedge polygons form directly above expanding ice wedges below the surface, and are therefore more elevated. The lower internal portion of the polygon allows pools of water from runoff and snowmelt to form atop the active layer. These polygons are visible all the way from space. 

Thanks to satellite imagery, scientists like Liljedahl are able to monitor ice-wedge polygons remotely. Satellite images date back to the mid-20th century and can be used to observe changes in the landscape overtime. 

During unusually warm summers, the tops of ice wedges can melt, which removes underlying support of the ground surface, causing slumps along the borders of ice-wedge polygons. These leveling borders form channels that siphon the water from pools in the centers of neighboring polygons. The resulting runoff streams can drain small pools and even larger lakes that took thousands of years to form. 

With the progression of climate change, these drainage systems have become more common. Liljedahl refers to them in the title of her manuscript, just published in the July issue of Nature Water, “The Capillaries of the Arctic Tundra.”

The increase in creation of new “capillaries” in the Arctic is impacting not only the topographical landscape of the region, but also the livelihoods of all beings that find their home there. 

At first, the melt of these ice wedges can spark an uptick in the variation of vegetation due to moisture along the sides of the channel. This, however, is temporary. When the ice wedges stabilize again in the winter, this variation decreases once more. 

Aquatic mosses— one of the most productive vegetal forms in the Arctic, equivalent in productivity to Arctic shrubs— inhabit pools formed alongside the edges of ice-wedge polygons. They lose their homes when bodies of water drain away. Major vegetation changes can alter carbon storage, availability, and emissions across the tundra.

 Humans are also impacted. Homes become too dangerous to live in as the ground supporting vital infrastructure collapses. Roads connecting communities to important resources are destroyed by subsiding ground. 

Despite their widespread impact, ice wedges are often overlooked in Arctic climate models. Historically, their inclusion “costs too much computer time,” Liljedahl says, to factor in. Many climate models take a holistic approach to the Arctic landscape, as opposed to focusing on smaller details. 

To remedy this, Liljedahl suggests utilization of developing technology such as Artificial Intelligence (AI). Classifying the Arctic landscape by type, for example, into high-center polygons, low-center polygons, and capillary networks, would factor ice wedge change into climate models. As AI advances and becomes a more common research tool, it could help decrease the human computing time that Liljedahl identifies as a barrier. 

Arctic research is likely to change drastically in the coming years. With new technologies, and as we learn more about the Arctic landscape, research models will likely become more inclusive of the varied features within it, and much more accurate. 

“There are exciting years ahead,” Liljedahl says, “I think we’re going to see some cool stuff coming out [of tundra research] in the next five to ten years.”

A new study, just published in the journal Nature Communications Earth & Environment, finds that severe droughts in the Amazon basin over the last two decades have led to longer periods of low water levels and triggered profound impacts on the local population. 

The severe droughts in 2005, 2010, and 2015-2016, in particular, not only drastically reduced water levels in a substantial part of the world’s largest river system, but also resulted in low water level periods exceeding 100 days, a month longer than expected. 

These droughts have major impacts on rural, remote Amazonian communities who heavily rely on inland water transport to access goods and services, reach urban centers, and maintain their livelihoods. The study concludes that during severe droughts, when such water transport is not available, nearly 50% of non-Indigenous localities and 54% of Indigenous villages in the Brazilian part of the Amazon basin are prone to isolation. These droughts also expose Amazonian communities to scarcity of goods, restricted access to healthcare and education, limited access to fishing and hunting sites, and other major impacts. 

“This is the new reality of the Amazon,” said Dr. Letícia Santos de Lima, researcher at the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (ICTA-UAB) and lead author of the study. “Scientists have been warning for years that the Amazon basin is facing a substantial increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme events due to climate change, on top of severe changes in its hydrological system due to deforestation and forest degradation. These past droughts as well as the most recent one, 2023-2024, are showing that the impacts on the ecosystems extend severely to the Amazon population.”

“The Amazon faces increasingly severe droughts due to global warming, with very real consequences for the communities that live there,” added Dr. Marcia Macedo, Woodwell Climate Research Center scientist and study co-author. “To better prepare for these extreme climate events, we need climate solutions that prioritize water resources alongside efforts to curb carbon emissions. This will be key for sustaining resilient ecosystems and communities in the Amazon and around the world.”

The paper states that “actions to cope with recent droughts in the Amazon have been reactive rather than proactive and grounded in preparedness and adaptation principles,” and calls for Amazon countries to “develop long-term strategies for mitigation, adaptation, and disaster response.” The authors also stress that any solutions to isolation must not also worsen the problem. For example, roads would not be an effective solution as they are a well-known driver of deforestation, which leads to changes in rainfall, contributes to a higher volume of sediments in rivers, and would impair navigability even further.

Using an interdisciplinary approach, researchers combined spatial analysis, methods from hydrology, and news media content analysis to deliver the first spatiotemporal assessment of cross-sectoral impacts of droughts in the Amazon basin.

Offsetting carbon alone won’t hold water

a foot stands on the bank of a small stream, dappled with sunlight

As I look out over the river from a floating cabin at the Mamirauá Sustainable Development Reserve in central Amazonia, it’s hard to imagine that water could become an issue here. It is the end of the rainy season and river levels, as usual, have peaked at 9-12 meters above their dry season mean. To my delight, we took canoes for a “hike” on the forest trails and spotted large fish like tambaqui and pirarucu , temporarily released from the confines of the riverbanks. The riverside communities we visit are practiced in dealing with these large seasonal fluctuations, having built their houses on stilts high on the riverbank and using boats to negotiate the ebbs and flows of the river, which they rely on for their livelihoods and transportation.

Read more on Boom!

Climate change was the center of the debate between rural producers, scientists, public authorities and indigenous peoples at the Symposium to Celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Tanguro Research Station, which took place in Brasilia from June 10 to 12. The event highlighted the dialogue between the groups as a key to socio-environmental and economic transformation in favor of a possible future for life on Earth.

Functioning as an open-air laboratory, the Tanguro Research Station is located in the city of Querência, in Mato Grosso, in the southeastern Amazon. It was founded by IPAM (Amazon Environmental Research Institute) in partnership with the company Amaggi and the Woodwell Climate Research Center in the United States. In two decades of existence, the results of this joint initiative add up to more than 180 high-impact scientific publications and bring together researchers from seven countries studying the environment and agriculture.

Ângela Conceição, president of FETAGRI, speaks on a panel at the event (Photo: Lucas Guaraldo/IPAM)

‘’The revolution in the countryside cost almost 50% of the Cerrado and 20% of the Amazon, this model is no longer sustainable, “said André Guimarães, executive director of IPAM. “It is necessary to ask questions to companies, as they will also have to adapt services to a new climatic condition,” he added. The director recalled that the assumption of the work at the Tanguro Research Station is to bring agricultural production closer to nature conservation.

The plurality of experiences and knowledge shared at the symposium was highlighted by Max Holmes, CEO of the Woodwell Climate Research Center, an institution that has been working alongside IPAM for thirty years.

“Bringing together this group of experts from science, civil society and from different places gives me hope and optimism. The challenge for all of us is to take forward the big ideas around the climate solutions discussed. Climate conferences are opportunities to continue to make progress on these incredibly urgent issues, which can only be solved in partnership,” Holmes said.

Balance

The meeting of different sectors around the socio-environmental and economic discussion comes at a time when studies show the loss of natural functions of tropical forests due to the global burning of fossil fuels, and, in Brazil, mainly due to deforestation, degradation and fire.

Ecosystem services, as the benefits produced by nature are called, maintain all forms of life, ensuring air quality and the availability of water and food, for example. They contribute to pollination, pest control and local climate regulation, providing adequate rain, humidity and temperature for agricultural production.

“How do we build a land use solution so that people understand that it is possible to reconcile forest with conservation, development with job and income generation from a better use of what we have already cut down? This is Brazil’s challenge. That is why we have sought a partnership with IPAM. That is why we created, in the State of Pará, the State Policy on Climate Change and the Amazon Now program,” said Helder Barbalho, governor of the State of Pará, present at the event.

Pará Governor HelderBarbalho and Minister Paulo Teixeira participated in the symposium (Photo: Disclosure/Agência Pará)

“We don’t know what the world will be like going forward, we just know it can’t be the same. We have a lot to learn and build with each other. Climate change is real and the producer realizes it, but if he does not feel he belongs in the conversation about what needs to be improved, it is difficult to engage,” said Juliana Lopes, director of ESG, Communication and Compliance at AMAGGI.

From 2022 to 2023, agriculture grew by 15.1%, influencing GDP performance, but still putting pressure on Brazilian biomes. The Tanguro Research Station develops studies to understand the influence of the forest on agriculture and vice versa, in order to subsidize environmentally and socially sustainable production and conservation strategies.

“Results of Tanguro’s research socialized with us are important to see new perspectives and develop agriculture, ensuring food security,” added ÂngelaConceição, president of FETAGRI (Federation of Agricultural Workers of the State of Pará).

Juliana Lopes endorsed the recognition: “The partnership with IPAM was the way that AMAGGI found, with researchers, to make an assessment of how we can ensure continuity in agricultural production, investing in the conservation of biodiversity and native areas.”

Knowledge generation

Storing half the carbon emitted on the globe, tropical forests provide climate stability. This stockpile capacity is being hampered by climate change caused by human activities. “Our challenge is to find ways to maintain that service and, at the same time, growth and prosperity,” said Woodwell Climate Research Center researcher Michael Coe.

And how to find an answer to this challenge? The solution may lie in nature itself. Data presented by Wayne Walker, senior scientist at Woodwell, shows that nature-based solutions have the potential to deliver 37% of the emissions reduction needed to limit global average temperature rise to less than 2°C. “Land is more than just a carbon store. We need to implement these solutions in a scalable way, ensuring capital flows with equity and sustainability,” he commented.

IPAM researcher Filipe Arruda pointed out that environmental disturbances have been occurring more intensely with climate change. “The impact on the habitat modifies the animal and plant species on site, changing everything from temperature control to pest control within the forest and in agricultural areas.”

Leonardo Maracahipes, coordinator of the Tanguro Research Station and researcher at IPAM, presented a study on the change in tree leaves in areas of intact forest and in those fragmented by agricultural activity. “The thickness of the leaf was greater in the area of agriculture, while the size of the leaf was greater in the areas of preserved forest,” he explained, demonstrating vegetation strategies to adapt to the surroundings.

In farming, the effects of nature are also the object of study: “We estimate a 6% reduction in soybean yield for every 1°C increase in temperature,” said Ludmila Rattis, a researcher at IPAM and the Woodwell Climate Research Center. On the positive side, when the forest is maintained, it helps in production. Bianca Rebelatto, a researcher at IPAM, recalled that 90% of Brazil’s agriculture is not irrigated and that forests protect crops against heat waves and reduce future climate challenges.

Scientists working at the Tanguro Research Station (Photo: Mitch Korolev/Woodwell)

Responses presented by the sectors to avoid more extreme events, reducing damage to the environment and promoting responsible ways of living include, in addition to sustainable production, the bioeconomy of natural products from the Amazon and Cerrado.

“Land use change and climate change have already increased the chances of a catastrophic fire in the Xingu by another 10%,” explained Paulo Brando, IPAM associate researcher and professor at Yale University in the United States. “About 16% of forests in the southeastern Amazon may burn due to these factors. Fire-degraded forests seem healthy from the point of view of remote sensing, but they are much more vulnerable to extreme events such as drought, which is what is happening in the Xingu and much of the region.”

According to Brando, the Xingu region is 2°C warmer due to increased deforestation and human pressure on the natural landscape. The Xingu Indigenous Territory functions as a local air conditioner, with 5°C less than monocultures and neighboring pastures, revealed a technical note produced by IPAM and the Woodwell Climate Research Center.

While the situation is not resolved, the peoples of the Xingu continue to struggle to produce. “We have the land, but we keep buying in the city. We, from the Xingu, are still studying how we can make production on a larger scale, “said Yuri Kuikuro, a master’s student in Ecology at INPA (National Institute for Amazonian Research). “It is necessary to bring young people to train, to use technology, to try to understand how to produce to maintain our culture. Add science to figure it out,” he concluded.

Survival

“First we have to think about surviving climate change: working in the collective, regardless of whether it is civil society, company or public power, for our physical and mental survival,” said Mauro O’ de Almeida, Secretary of State for Environment and Sustainability of Pará, present at the symposium.

The climate emergency alerts to the Amazon’s point of no return, also known as the tipping point, from which the biome would lose its natural capabilities and become a type of degraded ecosystem — a “zombie Amazon”. In the Cerrado, the reality also worries scientists, given that most of the biome’s remaining native vegetation is within private rural properties.

“It is common to hear that the world will end, but it has already ended, due to climate change, for the people who died in Rio Grande do Sul,” said researcher Ludmila Rattis, referring to the extreme climatic event of rainfall in Rio Grande do Sul this year. About 175 people died and 38 are missing. More than 2 million were affected by the floods, according to the Civil Defense.

In the Amazon, the Rio Negro drought in 2023 affected all 62 cities in the State of Amazonas and affected more than 600,000 people, also according to the state Civil Defense.

“The Xingu Indigenous Territory is also being impacted by climate change. Indigenous people have been talking about this for a long time and we are not taken seriously. These extreme events are affecting all sectors, so sitting at the table with partners who were once our enemies shows how we need to be united to change the scenario we have, “said Kaianaku Kamaiurá, partnership coordinator at OURS and coordinator of the Amazônia de Pé project.

The climate commitments of Brazil and the world, to be renewed and expanded until COP30 (United Nations Conference on Climate Change) in Belém, are the necessary measure to prevent the worsening of housing conditions on the planet and prevent more lives from being lost.

“First, that the world can accelerate the change in the energy matrix to stop emitting carbon dioxide. Second, pay for the maintenance of the forest and its recovery. In the past, I remember that agribusiness was against the climate debate, but not today: it has assumed an awareness that it needs the forest. COP30 will be the great political space in the Amazon to demand from the world attention for those who are preserving,” said Paulo Teixeira, Minister of Agrarian Development and Family Agriculture.

The Tanguro Research Station 20-Year Celebration Symposium was held by IPAM in partnership with the Woodwell Climate Research Center, Yale University School of the Environment, and Max-Planck-Geselschaft. Learn more about the Tanguro Research Station and how to donate on the website.

 

Hurricane Beryl may be a stark preview of what’s to come

The monster storm is a history-maker, fueled by extremely high ocean heat and proving the Atlantic season is off to an extremely active start

a satellite image shows the large, swirling white clouds of Hurricane Beryl in the atmosphere, with the curve of the earth visible

Hurricane Beryl’s rapid evolution from a tropical depression to a major Category 5 threat so early in the summer is raising alarms that forecasts for a “hyperactive” Atlantic storm season might be on target.

Late Monday, the churning Beryl escalated to Category 5 intensity, packing maximum sustained winds of 165 miles per hour — unprecedented this early in the Atlantic season, according to the National Hurricane Center. It became the strongest July Atlantic hurricane on record, surpassing the 160-mile-per-hour maximum winds set by Hurricane Emily in 2005. Before Emily, Hurricane Allen in August 1980 held the record for the earliest Atlantic hurricane clocking 165-mile-per-hour winds.

Read more on The Boston Globe.

The exhibit “In Flux: Perspectives on Arctic Change” sprawls across two floors of one of Cape Cod’s oldest summer-home mansions— Highfield Hall

When they first walk in, visitors see two of Woodwell Climate Board Member Georgia Nassikas’ encaustic paintings flanking a banner with the name of the exhibit. Woodwell Senior Geospatial Analyst Greg Fiske’s maps light up the entry hall. Sounds from Michaela Grill and Karl Lemiuex’s documentary film cascade down from the staircase to the second floor. Tall windows illuminate Gabrielle Russomagno’s small, detailed photographs of the Arctic’s durable vegetation and Aaron Dysart’s reflective sculpture, which invites us to tread with caution.

These six artists’ works have been on display in Highfield Hall since May 21st, and will remain as part of the “In Flux” exhibit until July 14th. On July 11th, some of the artists will participate in a panel discussion with their Woodwell scientist collaborators, Dr. Jennifer Watts and Dr. Sue Natali. 

Connecting to a new perspective

The exhibit’s goal is to connect a distant community to the reality of Arctic change. Many of us may never have the opportunity to visit the Arctic, or study it like Woodwell Climate researchers do. Art can help communicate the reality of an unfamiliar place. 

Woodwell Climate’s Arctic research informed every piece of art on display at Highfield Hall. Each artist has had the chance to travel to the Arctic alongside Woodwell researchers Dr. Jenny Watts and Dr. Sue Natali. According to Watts, traveling with an artist brought a new perspective to a landscape she had visited so many times before. 

“They are looking through the lens of the artist,” Watts says, “They’re kind of seeing it through this fresh look, and then we’re able to see it through their eyes.” 

Russomagno calls herself a “student of the Arctic.” Like some of the other artists, she had never been so far north before her 5-day trip with Watts to Alaska. She recalled the whirlwind experience of creating while acclimating to her new surroundings. 

“I was able to be making art while discovering,” Russomagno says, “I was looking at the same material [as Watts] and understanding it completely differently.”

The exhibit assumes visitors might come in with certain assumptions about the Arctic, but hopes they will soon throw their preconceived ideas out of Highfield Hall’s many windows. One of these false ideas, Watts says, is that the Arctic is a barren wasteland. 

“In the summer especially, it’s brimming with life, and we wanted to show that part of the story because it’s often overlooked,” she says. 

Bursts of life from the summer tundra— small shrubs, mosses, lichens, and grasses— are featured in Russomagno’s series of photographs in “The Quiet & the Mighty.” Nassikas’ encaustic paintings uniquely depict color, horizon, and change. Fiske’s maps teleport us from Highfield Hall to the tundra. The entire “In Flux” exhibit displays unexpected dimension. 

Why combine art and science?

The experience of the art at Highfield places the viewer in the atmosphere of the Arctic tundra. A quiet place with unexpected vibrancy, the uptick in frequency of deafening crashes as ice melts, breaks, and shifts. These elements would be much harder to glean from traditional methods of communication in the science world. A graph, for example, would likely not evoke such a strong emotional response. 

“I think Woodwell and other science organizations struggle with conveying their data, and hard facts, and things they’re discovering to a general audience,” Nassikas says, “Art is another way to change the world for the better.” 

Dysart echoed this message: “If research does not connect with people and culture, nothing’s going to change. Art can make that connection. Art has strength that words don’t.” 

Our shared home

Part of the power of this exhibit is its setting. We have the opportunity to experience the Arctic’s dynamic changes outside of its natural barriers, and Highfield Hall is the tether. 

Dysart says it is “A call back to [our] normal life as opposed to the gallery aesthetic.”

Highfield is a home. It may not feel familiar to everyone, with its extravagant furnishings, stained glass windows, chandeliers, and many rooms, but it was built by humans, for humans. The house has withstood the test of time, though it has changed greatly since its construction in 1878. The Arctic, too is a home for many people, animals, and plants— one that is threatened by climate change. The exhibit at Highfield Hall brings the changing Arctic home to our own changing landscape.