“Talk to Jim. Jim knows everything.”
That’s what everyone told Woodwell Assistant Scientist, Dr. Jennifer Watts, when she started writing up a research plan to study soil carbon on U.S. rangelands. “And indeed, he does,” Dr. Watts says. “He knows everything about the region, about grazing management, species management, anything having to do with land management on these ranches.”
With his felt Stetson, dusty jeans, and perennial tan, ranch manager Jim Howell looks a bit like the kind of cowboy Hollywood might dream up. And in a way he is—despite looking at home on the range, Howell grew up in Southern California. But he spent his summers out in Colorado’s Cimarron mountains, working on his grandfather’s cattle ranch.
Those summers were Howell’s introduction to the idea that the way livestock are managed can change their impact on the land—a thread that would pull him through a college degree in animal production, towards a career “knowing everything” about holistic ranch management. He was first clued into this concept while walking the fence line separating his family’s property from a patch of public land being used to graze sheep.
“I noticed there were lots of very healthy, perennial, bunch grasses on the sheep side, while our side of the fence had degraded to mostly silver sagebrush, Kentucky bluegrass, and dandelions,” says Howell. “And I just didn’t understand why the differences were so stark.”
Howell’s cattle were stocked continuously on the land, low in number but able to graze year round, while the sheep grazing permit required rotation. There might be a great flock of sheep up there one day and nothing but grass for the remainder of the year. That difference, it turned out, dramatically altered the kinds of plants that could flourish on the land.
“I became aware then that the way that we’d been managing our cows in our country up there was leading to its slow, long-term, ecological degradation. And I didn’t know what to do about it,” says Howell.
There have always been animals grazing the American West—before colonizers, even before native peoples. On the Great Plains there were bison; in the mountains and high altitude deserts of Southwestern Colorado, it was bighorn sheep and pronghorn antelope, as well as elk and mule deer. All three are rare sights now, with populations decimated by overhunting and habitat degradation.
Now, if you see any animal grazing on these ranges, it’ll probably be cattle.
Despite displacing native species, cows can still fill a natural niche in the rangeland ecosystem. Antelope, bison, sheep, and cows all belong to a group of animals called ruminants—animals that can digest grass. Many grasslands have co-evolved with ruminant species; their roaming feasts influence plant growth the same way pruning might affect the shape of a tree. Occasional shearing by a hungry cow stimulates new grass growth. It also creates a more competitive environment that supports a diverse array of plant species.
Grazing also plays a part in cycling nutrients and storing carbon in the soil. In a frequently dry climate like this one, digestion breaks down plant matter much faster than it would decay in the environment. Manure fertilizes new plant growth and returns carbon to the soil. Let this process continue unencumbered for a couple hundred thousand years, and you can build up a valuable carbon sink. And as long as the number of cattle isn’t rising, the oft-cited methane emissions from cow burps are minimal and cycled back down into the plants that grow up after grazing.
Since settlers arrived, however, the land has been put through centuries of abuse. Public lands were, for a long time, left open to unregulated grazing. Many rangelands have been over-stocked and grazed too frequently in order to make a profit and meet growing global beef demand. Land has been ecologically degraded, valuable topsoil was lost, and carbon stores declined as a result.
It would be easy to blame cows for this. But really, they’re not behaving much differently than pronghorn or bison would. They eat what’s in front of them. And they eat the tastier plants first. Howell likens it to a salad bar.
“If you go into a salad bar and there’s some lettuce that has been sitting there for three months, and some of it that’s just been replaced that morning, you take the new stuff. So that’s exactly what the cow does,” Howell says. “If she’s not made to move anywhere new, she’s just going to keep coming back and grazing the regrowth of the good stuff as long as it’s there.”
Pretty soon, perennial grass species, important for their deep roots that help prevent erosion and store carbon and water longer, are grazed into nothing. All that’s left are the sagebrush, dandelions, and other less desirable plants that Howell noticed dotting his family ranch.
“So the whole thing is about how the cows are managed, it’s not the cow itself that is a problem,” says Howell.
But if bad management can degrade the land, then good management should be able to restore it. While studying animal science in college, Howell encountered the concepts of “holistic management”, a term that began to decode this relationship between management practices and the health of the land. Controversial at its introduction a half century ago, holistic ranching has been gaining traction, and Howell and his ranch management company, Grasslands LLC, have helped urge its uptake.
The core principle is to make management decisions that restore lands and keep cattle in balance with the rest of the ecosystem—helping them fill the niche of the ancient grazers. This comes with a host of co-benefits, including water retention and higher plant productivity, that actually end up improving economic profitability for ranches in the long run. Simple adjustments, like lengthening the time between grazing a pasture again and wintering cows on native ranges instead of hay, can turn cattle from an ecosystem destroyer to an ecosystem helper.
“The trick is to let the cows do all the hard work,” says Howell.
Dr. Watts and Woodwell Senior Scientist Dr. Jonathan Sanderman, along with Dr. Megan Machmuller of Colorado State University, are interested in quantifying those co-benefits. Especially carbon storage.
“In the western US on our rangelands, just like in our croplands, we can change how we manage in a way that potentially could become a natural climate solution,” says Dr. Watts. “One where we’re bringing in more carbon than we’re emitting and we’re creating ecosystems that not only are beneficial for carbon sequestration, but also have more biodiversity, offer more habitat for wildlife, and more water conservation.”
In order to prove that value however, scientists need a baseline understanding of how much carbon is currently stored across both traditionally-and holistically-managed rangelands. It’s hard to get an estimate for such a large area (roughly 30% of the U.S. is covered with rangelands), so they are using a remote sensing model, which they verify with strategic on-the-ground sampling.
Howell’s work also created the perfect conditions for the research team to study the long term carbon benefits of altered ranching practices, which is a tricky thing to test empirically. Ranchers must constantly adjust their management techniques to stay profitable.
“In a classical research setting, you try to control all the variables but one, but in real life that’s not what happens,” says Howell. “Nothing is controlled. Day to day, you have to adapt to constantly changing conditions.”
But the ranches Howell’s company works with make those day-to-day decisions based on the principles of holistic management, so tracking carbon on those ranches over time offers the opportunity to generate baseline data on how they differ from more traditionally managed ones.
Howell also brought the expertise of a life spent on the range. He can identify just about any plant growing in the pasture, tell you which are native, which are invasive, and which used to be the preferred food of prehistoric ground sloths. His eye is trained to see diversity even in martian-esque deserts and read the history of the land in the structure of the soil. In May of 2022, Howell guided Drs. Sanderman, Watts, and Machmuller and their teams on a sample collection trip through Southwest Colorado and Utah. The researchers took soil cores, plant samples, moisture and temperature readings, and analyzed carbon fluxing in and out of the pasture.
The ultimate goal is to create a rangeland carbon management tool that will make the soil carbon data model accessible directly to ranch managers. Dr. Watts hopes having that data in hand will enable more ranchers to make management decisions with climate in mind. Dr. Sanderman also notes that it could be useful in eventually helping ranchers get paid for sustainable practices.
“Rangelands haven’t been included in voluntary carbon credit markets like cropping systems have,” says Dr. Sanderman. “Monitoring is a big problem because there’s so much land—How do you keep track of all that? That’s what our tool will be able to offer.”
There are limits to what grazing can accomplish, though. The lands out west aren’t suitable for large-scale cropping, being too dry or too mountainous, which makes them perfect for cattle. But when the animals take up space on land that would otherwise be used to produce crops—or worse, penned into feedlots—their benefits are compromised. Howell also notes that some grazing lands are already as saturated with carbon as they can be. And there remains the fact that ranching will get more complicated as the climate changes.
At the Valdez ranch in Delta, Colorado, Dr. Sanderman and research assistant Colleen Smith unfold a collapsible table in a field of cracking mud, dotted with the brittle stick skeletons of dead grass. Nearby, Dr. Machmuller is assisting Howell in extracting a long metal cylinder from the ground. It was plunged into the soil by a hydraulic corer attached to a pickup truck that’s idling in the field. Howell and Dr. Machmuller lay it out horizontally on the table and slide out the soil core—a 50 centimeter long history of the land beneath their feet.
Howell breaks open a section of the core with his fingers, revealing clusters of white crystals. This is a pasture that has been abused; over-irrigation by previous owners brought salts to the surface. Now nothing will grow here and wind gusts threaten to blow away loose topsoil. It’s a sacrifice zone. The current owners are considering installing solar panels instead.
Water is a big issue for ranchers and it’s threatening to get bigger. The region is constantly dipping in and out of severe drought, and in a place that depends heavily on winter snows for its groundwater and rivers, a warmer, drier climate is a threat.
Agriculture will depend more on irrigation as the climate warms and precipitation patterns change. But this empty pasture is proof that it’s not always a viable solution, and will become less so as climate change advances.
It enforces the urgency of the work Howell and team are doing. The faster we can draw carbon out of the atmosphere, the more successful these ranches are likely to be in the long term. The better managed the ranch, the more resilient it will be in the face of tough conditions.
In the end, Dr. Watts says, the outcome rests in the hands of ranch managers—people like Howell.
“Land managers are the ones that ultimately are going to make or break this country.”
It was supposed to be a quiet season, but only two months into summer and Alaska is already on track for another record-setting wildfire season. With 3 million acres already scorched and over 260 active fires, 2022 is settling in behind 2015 and 2004 so far as one of the state’s worst fire seasons on record. Here’s what to know about Alaska’s summer fires:
Southwestern Alaska, in particular, has been suffering. The season kicked off with an unseasonably early fire near Kwethluk that started in April. Currently, the East Fork Fire, which is burning near the Yup’ik village of St. Mary’s, AK, is among the biggest tundra fires in Alaska’s history. Just above Bristol Bay, the Lime Complex— consisting of 18 individual fires— has burned through nearly 865,000 acres. One of the longest lasting fires in the Lime Complex, the Upper Talarik fire, is burning close to the site of the controversial open-pit Pebble Mine.
For Dr. Brendan Rogers, who was in Fairbanks, AK for a research trip in May, the explosive start of the fire season contrasts strongly to conditions he saw in late spring.
“It was a relatively average spring in interior Alaska, with higher-than-normal snowpack. Walking around the forest was challenging because of remaining snow, slush, and flooded trails,” said Dr. Rogers.
Early predictions showed a 2022 season low in fire due to heavy winter snow. But the weather shifted in the last ten days of May and early June. June temperatures in Anchorage were the second highest ever recorded. High heat and low humidity rapidly dried out vegetation and groundcover, creating a tinderbox of available fuel. This sudden flip from wet to dry unfolded similarly to conditions in 2004, which resulted in the state’s worst fire season on record.
The conditions for this wildfire season were facilitated by climate change, and the emissions that result from them will fuel further warming. The hot temperatures responsible for drying out the Alaskan landscape were brought on by a persistent high pressure system that prevents the formation of clouds— a weather pattern linked to warming-related fluctuations in the jet stream.
“With climate change, we tend to get more of these persistent ridges and troughs in the jet stream,” says Dr. Rogers. “This will cause a high pressure system like this one to just sit over an area. There is no rain; it dries everything out, warms everything up.”
The compounding effects of earlier snowmelt and declining precipitation have also made it easier for ground cover to dry out rapidly under a spell of hot weather. More frequent fires also burn through ground cover protecting permafrost, accelerating thaw that releases more carbon. According to the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy, the frequency of big fire seasons like this one are only increasing— a trend expected to continue apace with further climate change.
Additionally, this summer has been high in lightning strikes, which were linked to the ignition of most of the fires currently burning in Alaska. Higher temperatures result in more energy in the atmosphere, which increases the likelihood of lightning strikes. On just one day in July over 7,180 lightning strikes were reported in Alaska and neighboring portions of Canada.
The destruction from these wildfires has forced rural and city residents alike to evacuate and escape the path of burning. Some residents of St. Mary’s, AK have elected to stay long enough to help combat the fires, clearing brush around structures and cutting trees that could spread fire to town buildings if they alight.
But the impact of the fires is also being felt in towns not in the direct path of the flames. Smoke particulates at levels high enough to cause dangerously unhealthy air quality were carried as far north as Nome, AK on the Seward Peninsula.
“Even though a lot of these fires are remote, that doesn’t preclude direct human harm,” says Woodwell senior science policy advisor Dr. Peter Frumhoff.
Recent research has shown that combatting boreal forest fires, even remote ones, can be a cost effective way to prevent both these immediate health risks, as well as the dangers of ground subsidence, erosion, and loss of traditional ways of life posed by climate change in the region.
Mid-July rains have begun to slow the progression of active fires but, according to Dr. Frumhoff, despite the lull, it is important to keep in mind that the season is not over yet.
“The uncertainty of those early predictions also applies to the remainder of the fire season — we don’t know how much more fire we’ll see in Alaska over the next several weeks.”
A recent paper, published in Science Advances, has found that fires in North American boreal forests have the potential to send 3 percent of the remaining carbon budget up in smoke. The study, led by Dr. Carly Phillips, a fellow with the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), in collaboration with the Woodwell Climate Research Center, Tufts University, the University of California in Los Angeles, and Hamilton College, found that burned area in U.S. and Canadian boreal forests is expected to increase as much as 169 and 150 percent respectively—releasing the equivalent annual emissions of 2.6 billion cars unless fires can be managed. The study found proper fire management offers a cost-effective option, sometimes cheaper than existing options, for carbon mitigation.
Boreal forests are incredibly carbon rich. They contain roughly two-thirds of global forest carbon and provide insulation that keeps permafrost soils cool. Burned areas are more susceptible to permafrost thaw which could in turn release even more carbon into the atmosphere. Although fires are a natural part of the boreal ecosystem, climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of them, which threatens to overwhelm the forest’s natural adaptations.
Despite the value of boreal forests for carbon mitigation, the U.S. and Canada spend limited amounts of funding on fire suppression, usually prioritizing fire management only where people and property are at risk. Alaska accounts for one fifth of all burned area in the U.S. annually, but it receives only 4 percent of federal funding for fire management. Limiting fire size and burned area through proper management can be effective at reducing emissions.
To prevent worsening emissions, fire management practices will have to be adjusted to not only protect people and property, but also to address climate change. Fire suppression in boreal forests is an incredibly cost-effective way to reduce emissions. The study found that the average cost of avoiding one ton of carbon emissions from fire was about $12. In Alaska, that means investing an average of just $696 million per year over the next decade to keep the state’s wildfire emissions at historic levels.
Increasing wildfires also pose an outsized threat to Alaska Native and First Nations communities, who may become increasingly isolated, and may lack the resources to evacuate quickly if wildfire encroaches on their lands. Many Alaska Native people already play a crucial role in existing wildfire crews, and investing in more fire suppression could create additional job opportunities for Indigenous communities.
It’s a big idea—a pan-Arctic monitoring network for permafrost emissions—but big ideas are exactly what The Audacious Project was created to foster.
This April, Woodwell Climate Research Center was awarded 41.2 million dollars through Audacious to not only build such a network, filling gaps in our understanding of how much carbon is released into the atmosphere from thawing permafrost, but also to put research to work shaping policy and helping people.
The new project, called Permafrost Pathways, combines scientific prowess from Woodwell with policy, community engagement, and Indigenous knowledge from the Arctic Initiative at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, the Alaska Institute for Justice (AIJ), and the Alaska Native Science Commission.
Carbon emissions from permafrost thaw are one of the biggest areas of uncertainty in global climate calculations. Thawing permafrost is expected to release between 30 and 150 billion tons of carbon by 2100, the higher estimates on par with or even exceeding the United States’ cumulative emissions if allowed to continue at current rates. Yet permafrost is not accounted for in carbon budgets and international agreements. Permafrost Pathways will develop more complete data on permafrost carbon and deliver that research into the hands of those poised to decide how we deal with the warming Arctic.
Permafrost Pathways is led on the Woodwell side by Arctic Program Director Dr. Sue Natali and Associate Scientist Dr. Brendan Rogers, who have both been researching permafrost carbon for years. Dr. Natali found her way to the Arctic through a desire to work in a place significant to the global carbon story. The rapid changes she has witnessed in the past decade have underscored the Arctic as ground zero for climate change.
“I’ve seen dramatic changes from one year to the next in the places where I work, and Arctic residents have been observing these changes for decades,” Dr. Natali says. “You can measure something one year and then the ground there collapses the next. The physical changes across the landscape are really startling to see.”
Drs. Natali and Rogers have seen eroded hillslopes, research trips abandoned due to wildfire, community meetings with Arctic residents whose homes are sinking—every experience reinforced the fact that there was still much more to learn about how thawing permafrost feeds into climate change and is impacting Arctic communities.
The Audacious grant will allow Drs. Natali and Rogers to pull together the threads of their prior research into a project that starts to tackle the issue on a grander scale.
“When you’re focused on individual problems or hypotheses, you’re not able to really think big about something like monitoring across the Arctic,” says Dr. Rogers. “Opening up a funding source like this lets you think at a scale that matches the problems we face.”
The project is thinking really big, with the goal of installing 10 new eddy covariance towers—structures with instruments that measure carbon flux—in key areas where data is currently lacking. Pathways will also maintain existing key towers that would otherwise be decommissioned, and augment others to measure carbon fluxes year-round.
“There are a lot of existing towers that are either not running through the winter, or they’re not measuring methane, or they’re on hold for instrumentation upgrades or lack of funding,” Dr. Natali says. “We will get even more new data by maintaining old towers than constructing new ones.”
In parallel, Woodwell will work with a team at University of Alaska Fairbanks to develop a novel permafrost model that fully harnesses the data, accounting for important but currently neglected processes, and ultimately delivers more accurate projections of permafrost emissions to inform policy makers and Arctic communities.
While the science team ramps up new data collection, AIJ will be breaking down the issue of adaptation. The Arctic is warming faster than anywhere else on Earth, and it is not waiting for exact measurements to make the consequences known.
The land upon which many Alaska Native communities are located is destabilizing in the face of usteq—a Yupik word for the catastrophic ground collapse that occurs when thawing permafrost, erosion, and flooding combine to pull the ground out from under them. In many places the formerly solid cornerstones of villages—houses, roads, airports, cemeteries— have had to be picked up and moved to more stable ground.
“It is an awful, awful decision that communities are being faced with because the land on which they’re living is becoming uninhabitable,” says Executive Director of AIJ, Dr. Robin Bronen.
On top of the trauma of watching their villages sink into the Earth, there is no clear path for Arctic communities deciding they must completely relocate.
“It’s become painfully clear that we in the United States have no institutional or governance structure to facilitate this type of movement of people,” says Dr. Bronen. There is no standardized way for people displaced by the climate crisis seeking resettlement to apply for funding and technical assistance for a community-wide relocation.
“If policy changes aren’t made nationally, then a lot of communities in the United States are going to be experiencing this incredible disconnect between making the decision that they are ready to leave, but having no resources to implement that decision,” says Dr. Bronen.
Permafrost Pathways will be working with Arctic residents to help them adapt to their rapidly shifting landscape. Through AIJ and the Alaska Native Science Commission, the project will connect with communities, collaborate to generate data they can use in their decision making and, if they make the choice to move, work with them to secure the resources needed for relocation.
Permafrost Pathways isn’t the first to tackle these issues but, Dr. Natali says, it does represent a unique combination of expertise that could push forward both carbon mitigation and climate adaptation policies.
Leader of the Arctic Initiative, professor, and Senior Advisor to Woodwell’s president, Dr. John Holdren understands the value of connections in making lasting change; he has been speaking to top policy makers in the U.S. and abroad for much of his career.
“All of us at the Belfer Center have been linking science and policy for a long time and communication is important to that,” says Dr. Holdren. “In my view, it’s going to remain important to have personal connections at high levels.”
Working through these connections, Permafrost Pathways will put the project’s science into the hands of policymakers to impress upon them the issue’s urgency.
“All the news coming out about permafrost carbon has been bad news,” says Dr. Holdren. “I think what we are going to find is that the high estimates are much more likely to be right than the low estimates. We’ve got to get that factored into the policy process.”
For Dr. Natali, the most important outcome of Permafrost Pathways is a future in which the threats presented by permafrost thaw are taken seriously by governments.
“I want to see permafrost thaw emissions accounted for,” says Dr. Natali. “I want to see the national and international community actually wrestle with the effects of permafrost thaw and to take action to respond to the climate hazards.”
Dr. Rogers says he hopes the collaborative nature of this already-big project will have even larger, rippling effects— paving the way for new partnerships and policy change.
“There’s the critical work that we will be doing, and then there are the new doors that a project of this scope opens,” says Dr. Rogers. “And we aren’t reaching our end goal without those open doors.”
The Audacious Project is an initiative of the non-profit TED that funds large-scale solutions to the world’s most challenging problems. Every year, the Project selects a cohort of big ideas to nurture with funding and resources.
Tune in to PBS NOVA on February 2 to watch Arctic Sinkholes, an original documentary that explores the hidden dynamics of thawing permafrost and the emissions it releases. The documentary features Woodwell Arctic Program Director, Dr. Sue Natali, alongside other prominent climate scientists working to better understand how climate change is impacting the Arctic.
The film centers on the 2014 discovery of methane craters in the Arctic. These features of the landscape are formed as permafrost thaws, and trapped greenhouse gasses expand, pushing the soil up. When the pressure becomes too great, these bubbles of earth can explode suddenly, creating massive craters on the Arctic landscape and releasing a burst of atmosphere-warming gasses.
“There’s a lot of discussion about carbon dioxide and its relationship to climate, but the impact of
methane coming out of the Arctic is potentially enormous,” says NOVA Co-Executive Producer Julia Cort. “Making accurate predictions about the future depends on good data, and Arctic Sinkholes reveals what scientists have to do to get that data, as they try to measure an invisible, odorless gas that’s underground in some of the most remote and challenging environments in the world.”
To better understand the extent and significance of these craters, Dr. Natali and Woodwell Senior Geospatial Analyst, Greg Fiske, devised a method of mining satellite imagery data for key characteristics that would indicate a recent explosion. A sudden shift from vegetation to water, for example — often, craters quickly fill up with rain, becoming lakes that obscure their own origins.
Outgassing from the craters themselves represents only a small subset of the larger potential emissions from permafrost thaw. Current estimates show that thawing permafrost could contribute as much to warming this century as continued annual emissions from the United States.
Methane craters make evident the speed at which the Arctic is warming, and the changes permafrost thaw is causing on the landscape. In their research, Dr. Natali and Fiske uncovered other impacts of permafrost thaw— slumping ground, sinkholes, and coastal erosion are destabilizing the ground on which many Arctic communities are built.
“These abrupt changes that are occurring in this once-frozen ground are happening faster than we expected,” said Dr. Natali. “And that is not only going to accelerate warming, but also affect the lives of millions who make their home in the Arctic.”
Future research will work towards more precise estimates of permafrost thaw emissions and a better understanding of the changing Arctic.
Arctic Sinkholes premieres Wednesday, February 2, 2022 at 9pm ET/8C on PBS and will be available for streaming online at pbs.org/nova and on the PBS video app.