1. Collaborating with Communities

This year, Woodwell Climate’s Just Access Initiative went global. Just Access works in close partnership with communities to provide tailored, actionable climate risk reports for Rio Branco, Brazil; Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; Summit County, Utah; and Lawrence, MA. At COP28, Just Access released their latest report in collaboration with the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development of the DRC, which focused on climate risks and potential solutions in the country and identified carbon markets as a potential funding mechanism for adaptation efforts.

Just Access collaborates with local officials and advocates to ensure the final reports cover information critical to their community’s planning. So far, 14 reports have been completed and more are on the way.

Read the report.

2. Tongass National Forest Protection

In January of 2023, the Biden Administration restored protections against logging and road-building for more than 9 million acres of the Tongass National Forest, the world’s largest intact temperate rainforest. 

This came after Woodwell Climate’s Dr. Wayne Walker and Geospatial Analyst Seth Gorelik, along with long-time collaborator Dr. Dominick DellaSalla of Wild Heritage, delivered a research report to the Biden administration showing massive carbon stores in Tongass National Forest and highlighting the importance of roadless areas. 

3. Citizen Science with Science on the Fly

In 2023, Science on the Fly’s (SOTF) focused their activities on stewarding their community of scientists. Together they collected more than 3,000 water samples from hundreds of locations around the globe. SOTF leverages the passion and dedication of the global fly fishing community to gather data on the health of rivers across the world. With this data, SOTF can improve our understanding of how watersheds and river systems change over time due to climate change and local effects.

Read about the project’s activities this year.

4. Training the Next Generation of Researchers

We sent 10 Polaris Project students into the field this summer. The Polaris Project engages the brightest young minds from a diversity of backgrounds to tackle global climate research in one of Earth’s most vulnerable environments: the Arctic.

Students conducted their own research projects over two weeks at a field research station near Bethel, Alaska. Afterwards, they returned to the Center to analyze samples, and presented their findings at the American Geophysical Union meeting in December.

Woodwell Climate also hosted several interns through the Partnership Education Program. These undergraduate students participated in research and communications activities across the center.

Read PEP intern, Jonathan Kopeliovich’s story about research in Howland Forest.

5. Convening Critical Conversations

Woodwell Climate has been conducting tropical forest research in Brazil for nearly two decades alongside partner organization IPAM Amazônia. This year, Water Program Director, Dr. Marcia Macedo and collaborators, including Dr. Ane Alencar of IPAM, convened a multi-day workshop in Brazil that produced a policy brief on forest degradation. They then organized experts to submit public comments on Brazil’s updated policy for controlling Amazon deforestation, which for the first time also addresses forest degradation.

Read the policy brief here.

Across the globe, Permafrost Pathways partner, Alaska Institute for Justice (AIJ), hosted a “Rights, Resilience, and Community-Led Adaptation” workshop on Dena’ina homelands in Anchorage, Alaska. The two-day workshop created space for Tribes to share their expertise with each other and connect face-to-face with federal and state government representatives to access resources and technical assistance.

Read more about the workshop.

6. Representing Our Expertise

Our experts showed up as thought leaders this year at several high profile events. As just a few examples, Woodwell Climate’s Arctic Program Director Dr. Sue Natali and Senior Science Policy Advisor Peter Frumhoff both spoke on panels alongside other leading voices in climate at SxSW in Austin, TX. Senior Geospatial Analyst, Greg Fiske attended the Esri User Conference, where his topographic map of Alaska garnered two awards. And Assistant Scientist, Dr. Ludmilla Rattis gave a talk at TED Countdown about her research on the role of Tapirs in rainforest restoration. (Recording coming in early 2024)

7. Making Headlines

Woodwell Climate team members showed up in over 5,000 media stories this year. Our scientific leadership provided quotes for a broad range of high profile climate stories in New York Times, Reuters, Boston Globe, CNN and Grist, just to name a few. Senior Scientist Dr. Jen Francis was quoted over 4.2K times, appearing in major news outlets like the Washington Post and AP News to provide accessible context about the links between climate change and extreme weather events. 

8. Rebuilding an Arctic Research Station

Last fall, Scotty Creek Research Station in Canada—one of the only Indigenous-led climate research stations in the world—was almost entirely consumed by a late-season wildfire. Woodwell Climate’s Permafrost Pathways project is providing rebuilding support to the Łı́ı́dlı̨ı̨ Kų́ę́ First Nation. Project scientists Dr. Kyle Arndt and Marco Montemayor visited the site for two weeks this spring to restore an essential carbon monitoring tower.

Read the story of Scotty Creek.

9. Advancing the Scientific Literature

Our researchers published 80 peer-reviewed scientific publications this year. From the Arctic to the Tropics, from soil concentrations to river concentrations, Woodwell Climate had a part in discovery.

Assessing carbon stocks and accumulation potential of mature forests and larger trees in U.S. federal lands

Recent trends in the chemistry of major northern rivers signal widespread Arctic change

Grain-cropping suitability for evaluating the agricultural land use change in Brazil

Observational and model evidence together support wide-spread exposure to noncompensable heat under continued global warming

Explore all our publications.

10. Leading on the World Stage

Woodwell Climate’s President & CEO Dr. Max Holmes brought Woodwell Climate to the main stage of CERAWeek, Green Accelerator Davos, GenZero Climate Summit in Singapore, Climate Week NYC, and Mountainfilm Festival. He discussed cutting-edge climate science alongside notable figures like Bill McKibben and former Colombian President Iván Duque Márquez.Read about Dr. Holmes’ time at Davos.

COP 28, the annual meeting of United Nations delegates to set goals and report progress on addressing climate change, closed last week in Dubai after a two-week rollercoaster that was both promising and discouraging. When weak draft language surfaced, just a few days before negotiations were set to close, shying away from any clear call to eliminate fossil fuels, the outlook was not optimistic. But nearly overnight, representatives managed to arrive at a deal. For the first time in 28 years of negotiations, the final agreement included direct reference to the need to “transition away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly, and equitable manner.”

The language is not as strong as many hoped, but it still represents a historic step forward, and came as a positive surprise after controversy surrounding the oil interests of the host country.

“We’ve known from COP number one that fossil fuels are a major cause of the problem with respect to climate change, but the reality is that it wasn’t until COP28 that the words ‘fossil fuels’ were actually recognized in the agreement,” says Woodwell Climate CEO and President, Dr. Max Holmes. “It’s really late in the game, but I think it’s important that this was finally recognized. Yet words are not actions, and much more needs to be done.”

International agreements were also made to reduce methane emissions generated by fossil fuel extraction and triple renewable energy by 2030, as well as enact the agreed-upon Loss and Damage fund created last year, which will use contributions from wealthier countries to support those suffering the worst climate-related impacts.

Progress also occurred on many smaller stages at COP28. Woodwell Climate had a strong presence, sending 16 scientists and staff to advocate on a variety of issues, including increased ambition in curbing emissions, funding for adaptation measures, action around permafrost and tropical forest issues, and improvements in transparency around carbon markets. Here are some of our key highlights and takeaways from COP28.

Protecting tropical forests

One core tenet of the Center’s research is the value of protecting and restoring natural ecosystems for both their intrinsic and climate importance. A check-in on pledges to end deforestation by 2030 shows they are mostly going unmet, but the final agreement did include language that acknowledged the importance of “protecting, conserving, and restoring forests”, which Woodwell Carbon Program Director, Dr. Wayne Walker, notes was another significant inclusion this year.

“Nature has a tremendous role to play and that’s really what this section is trying to emphasize: the importance of bringing nature to bear in the mitigation conversation alongside transitioning away from fossil fuels,” said Dr. Walker.

Woodwell Climate used this year’s COP to build and deepen partnerships that advance efforts to protect the carbon-storage powerhouses that are tropical forests. For example, Woodwell Climate hosted a discussion with Health in Harmony and Pawanka Fund about the power of  investing in Indigenous-led climate solutions. 

“Woodwell has been partnering increasingly with organizations like Health in Harmony and Pawanka fund, who are really strong advocates of Indigenous self-determination”, says Dr. Walker. “Pawanka Fund is a really great example of an Indigenous-led fund that provides direct support to Indigenous initiatives focused on promoting and protecting traditional knowledge, well-being, rights, and self-determined solutions to a whole host of issues. Organizations like [them] are critical to properly compensating Indigenous peoples for their contributions to climate change mitigation.”

Climate risk and carbon markets

On December 5, Woodwell Climate announced the release of a new report in partnership with the Ministry of the Environment and Sustainable Development (MEDD) of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The report was the culmination of a multi-year collaboration to generate a localized, customized, cost-free climate risk assessment for the country that details both challenges and solutions. 

“This report was two years in the making, and was only possible because of close collaboration between Woodwell scientists, government leaders in the DRC, and experts at the University of Kinshasa,” says Woodwell Chief of Government Relations. “Our goal was to provide an actionable risk assessment that could directly inform Congolese policymaking. We developed that, but our partnership also identified the need for increased scientific and technical capacity, as well as a new framework for carbon market regulation.” 

The assessment identified improved carbon credit integrity as a mechanism to fund climate adaptation projects in the DRC and support forest preservation as a critical natural climate solution.

“We and others think carbon markets will have tremendous potential for bringing large amounts of capital to the ground to the people into the places responsible for implementing natural climate solutions,” says Dr. Walker. “But there’s no question that right now, carbon markets are plagued with all sorts of problems. There’s a lot of work to be done if they’re to function properly, sustainably, equitably.”

Pushing for permafrost accountability

Unfortunately, neither the Arctic nor permafrost were mentioned in the COP28 final agreement and Woodwell Climate Arctic Program Director, Dr. Sue Natali, says it is crucial that changes.

“Permafrost emissions can consume about 20% of our remaining carbon budget to avoid 1.5 C, and there will be much greater emissions from permafrost if we overshoot 1.5 C,” says Dr. Natali.

Dr. Natali spoke at several events in the Woodwell Climate space as well as in the Cryosphere Pavilion during Permafrost Day. Top of mind was not only the need to incorporate permafrost emissions into global carbon budgets, but also the need for Loss and Damage funding to extend to Northern communities being displaced by thawing and eroding permafrost. Discussions around Loss and Damage funding are currently focused on supporting countries in the global south, but many Arctic communities are grappling with decisions about relocation and adaptation, and have been for decades.

“These communities who already have very limited land are losing it to permafrost thaw, wildfire, increased storm impacts. This has been going on for a really long time and they urgently need resources,” Dr. Natali said. 

Where the rubber meets the road

“These high-minded Nationally Determined Commitments are ambitious in their target setting, but the national level policy is where they become reality,” says McGlinchey. Emphasizing that we will have to wait and see how the promises made at this year’s COP are enacted by different nations. During the conference, the Woodwell Climate meeting space was visited by two US senators, Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who showed interest in permafrost and other climate issues.

Looking towards COP29, which will be hosted in Azerbaijan, the hope is that ambition and national commitments will increase, because while progress was made in this year’s agreement, it was nowhere near big enough to limit warming to below 1.5 degrees celsius. With current warming at around 1.2 degrees, we will have to be swift and decisive.

“This past year was a remarkable one— the hottest on record. The impacts of climate change are here and are being felt by people here and around the world. And that adds urgency,” says Dr. Holmes.

For the full debrief of COP28, you can watch our Webinar here.

Woodwell Climate’s Dr. Sue Natali appointed to DOI adaptation science council

Woodwell Climate’s Arctic Program Senior Scientist and Permafrost Pathways Lead Dr. Sue Natali was appointed by U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland as a member of the new federal Advisory Council for Climate Adaptation Science.

Read more on Permafrost Pathways’ website.

On September 13th, 2023 a group of 15 of Woodwell Climate Research Center staff, scientists, and board members gathered on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. They had a big day ahead of them: on the docket were around 16 different meetings with Congressional staff and Members of Congress on topics ranging from carbon markets and the Farm Bill, to water research, to assessments of climate risk. The goal was clear across the board: share the takeaways from Woodwell’s scientific research with the very policymakers who are tasked with making decisions on climate issues. 

This was Woodwell Climate’s second annual “Fly-In”so called because it brings team members of a non-DC-based organization, like Woodwell, face-to-face with policymakers in Congress. The masterminds behind the Fly-In were staff members who are part of an invaluable team at the Center: the Government Relations (GR) team.

Building a team for the greatest impact

Woodwell Climate has always been involved in the policy-making process. From its outset, the driving principle behind the Center has been carrying out scientific research to inform decision making. For many years, however, there were no team members on staff whose primary responsibility was to bridge the gap between science and policy. When Dave McGlinchey, Chief of Government Relations, came on board with the Center via the Communications team, then-president Dr. Philip Duffy was taking on much of the policy work himself. It became clear as the Center grew, that  in order to realize the full impact potential of the Center’s research they needed a dedicated policy team. 

Today, the GR team has four full-time members who come from a diverse set of professional backgrounds. McGlinchey got his start as a journalist on Capitol Hill who “fell in love with the policymaking process” and felt drawn to address the severity of the climate crisis. Laura Uttley, Director of Government Relations, has been a lobbyist in D.C. for over ten years and was excited to join a relatively new team establishing its roots in the capital. Andrew Condia, External Affairs Manager, spent many years working in the office of a U.S. Senator as a liaison for local government officials. He pivoted to Woodwell because he wanted a more narrow focus on a policy area he was passionate about: solving environmental problems. And Natalie Baillargeon, a Policy Analyst, was a scientist first before she realized that her passion lay in transforming that science into useful policy. 

It is precisely this diversity of perspectives that makes the team so effective, Uttley says, because they are able to reach decisions by coming at problems from many different angles. The full-time team members work alongside Dr. Peter Frumhoff, a part-time Senior Science Policy Expert, and Government Relations Assistant Abby Fennelly.  

The road from research to legislation

In the three years since the creation of the team, the investment in dedicated GR staff members has proven invaluable.  

“In 2023, it’s no longer enough to produce good science and hope something good comes of that…What we came to realize is that we really need to get involved in shaping that policy,” McGlinchey says. “The science is not getting put to use otherwise. And if we don’t get involved in the policymaking process, other people will, and oftentimes it will be people who are not prioritizing climate stability as one of their main objectives” 

So how does the GR team shape policy?  

“Anytime the government acts, there’s an opportunity to influence policymakers, legislation, or regulations and promote or defend policies that advance Woodwell’s interests,” Uttley says. For the members of the GR team, their job is to spot those opportunities and leverage Woodwell’s science in a way that improves climate policy. 

That process starts with building relationships and trust with decision makers. As McGlinchey puts it, “you can’t show up in these policymaking settings and just expect people to welcome you in and embrace your science right off the bat.” 

The GR team puts time and effort into establishing Woodwell’s reputation for producing rigorous, high-quality science and advocating for pragmatic, nonpartisan policies that foster relationships and improve climate-related legislation. After building the organization’s credibility in government, team members take a two pronged approach to advancing climate policy. The first is to spot windows within existing legislation where “there could be a stronger role of climate science,” McGlinchey says. 

One example of this is Woodwell’s work on the Farm Bill, legislation that authorizes programs related to agriculture, nutrition, conservation, and forestry policy and must be renewed every five years. Given climate science pertains to a range of topics and policies included in the Farm Bill, Woodwell developed policy priorities, hosted a congressional briefing, drafted legislative text alongside congressional offices, and spoke with decision-makers about advancing the role of climate science in the Farm Bill. 

The second approach Woodwell’s GR team takes is to build support for new initiatives. An example of this is Woodwell’s push for the development of a more coordinated system of national climate services, which grew out of one of the Center’s flagship programs: Just Access.

Just Access is a partnership between GR and Woodwell’s Risk program that provides “useful, relevant, accessible, and free of charge climate information that can help communities make forward thinking policy decisions,” says Condia, who leads this work on the GR side. 

GR team members find and communicate with partner governments around the world, providing project management while the Risk team completes the scientific assessment of risk for relevant climate factors such as heat, flooding, and drought. 

Through this work, the Woodwell team has come face to face with the enormous gaps in delivery of climate services and information to local and regional governments. “You realize that you’re just scratching the surface,” McGlinchey laments. “You work with Chelsea, Massachusetts, and it’s important and powerful. But there’s 1000 other communities like it that I wish we could work with.”

For many communities, Condia says, “the Just Access program may be the only opportunity they have to have access to this data, to be able to understand their climate future.” This realization led the GR team to develop an advocacy framework calling for a new federal initiative establishing comprehensive national climate services. 

From Chelsea, Massachusetts to the D.R.C.

Federal policy work can be a long game. For Baillargeon, working on more local projects like Just Access is exciting because “when we work with these communities, science is in the hands of decision-makers immediately.” In many cases, communities quickly undertake steps towards protecting vulnerable residents and infrastructure identified by the risk assessments. In Chelsea, Massachusetts, city officials integrated the results of the assessment into their planning for equitable climate resilience solutions. In Charleston, South Carolina, local governments are using their risk assessment as support for a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) grant application.  

It’s not just in the United States where these risk assessments have an impact. For the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Environment Ministry, Woodwell completed a unique assessment that included an analysis of risk to forest carbon stocks. The risk assessment led to a request for Woodwell to support the creation of a regulatory agency for carbon markets.

For McGlinchey, this work is incredibly exciting. “This is a once in a generation opportunity to direct enormous amounts of funding into forest conservation efforts…and we need those forests conserved if we’re going to have a stable climate.” Voluntary carbon markets, he says, have not historically been reliable. What’s happening now in the DRC is an opportunity for Woodwell policy experts to support the creation of science-backed standards to ensure that when offsets or credits are sold there is a verifiable climate benefit. In short: “there’s a lot at stake here.” 

Endless possibility for policy action

The flow of opportunities for leveraging Woodwell’s research continues to build momentum. The team is rising to meet the challenge, and there is a lot they want to accomplish in the coming years. As they take on new projects and add new team members, they will continue to stay true to the organization’s mission, never straying from the science. Each team member was adamant about one thing: Woodwell does things differently, and it is that difference that leads to such a profound policy impact coming from such a small team.

“Woodwell exists in not a unique niche, but an unusual one,” McGlinchey says. “We’re not a pure science organization, but we’re not a straight advocacy organization. We bring deep scientific credentials and then we get into the policymaking room and engage and try to create better legislation…people appreciate it. They appreciate that our motivations are purely focused on a stable, safe climate.” It’s what makes an event like September’s Fly-In so successful. Science, translated into policy, without the political baggage. 

“Once they figure that out about Woodwell,” says McGlinchey, “they want to work with us.”

On September 27th, Woodwell Climate scientists and policy experts from the Center for Climate and Security (CCS) conducted a briefing on climate security risks in Iran and Türkiye. The presentation, hosted in the Capitol, drew in a crowd of interested congressional staffers to learn more about the relationship between the worsening climate crisis and national security issues.

This was the second of two such collaborative briefings, following a presentation to members of executive branch agencies, including the State Department, Department of Defense, US Institute of Peace, National Intelligence Council, and the Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, earlier in the month. Alex Naegele, a postdoctoral researcher with the Climate Risk Program at Woodwell, presented the results of two risk analyses produced in collaboration with CCS. The analyses used model projections to examine the impacts of climate change on rainfall, water scarcity, and wildfire. 

Security experts from CCS— Tom Ellison, Elsa Barron, and Brigitte Hugh— then provided insight into political and social issues in both countries that intersect with climate risks, creating potentially destabilizing effects. In Türkiye, for example, diminishing water resources have the potential to create cross-boundary conflicts if it’s perceived by downstream countries to be “hoarding” water for its own citizens.

The briefing was highly attended by congressional staff across the political spectrum from 27 different House and Senate offices.

“The congressional crowd can be different and you never know exactly what you’re going to get,” says Woodwell External Affairs Manager Andrew Condia. “But you could just tell by the questions, and sort of the attention to the presentation that this was a very relevant and interesting topic across the board. It was a much more bipartisan turnout than I was expecting.”

That turnout speaks to the broad interest in how climate change represents a growing threat to national security interests. By speaking on climate through a security lens, Woodwell scientists are able to broaden interest and attention on climate issues throughout various branches of the federal government. 

“Through this collaboration with CCS, we’re able to use our science and forward-looking approach to highlight specific climate risks to the security community. It’s something that’s not widely practiced and it’s a unique position to be in,” says Naegele. 

Woodwell and CCS are looking forward to expanding the scope of future climate security case studies to draw links between the impacts of climate change and disruption to other countries or even other social systems.

“It would be interesting to apply this same thinking to an analysis of a certain theme instead of country. Perhaps examining impacts on supply chains or food systems,” says Ellison. “There’s a ton of issues we’ve barely scratched the surface on.”

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.

Federal forest policy

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.”

Forest protection on the state level

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.”

On April 20, 2023, the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) and Department of Agriculture (USDA) released a first-of-its-kind inventory of the country’s mature and old-growth forests. The assessment responded directly to a 2022 executive order aimed at fostering healthy forests.

The inventory highlights the importance of forest health in building resilience to future climate-related disturbances like drought or fire, but it omits mention of the service that all forests, but particularly mature and old growth forests, provide in directly mitigating the country’s carbon emissions—a service that Woodwell Climate’s scientists have worked to measure and monitor for over three decades.

The inventory is a critical starting point, from which agencies like the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management will begin to make decisions about how public forests are managed going forward. Not acknowledging the critical carbon storage contribution of mature and old-growth forests runs the risk of de-prioritizing protection for the country’s oldest, most carbon-rich, and hardest to replace ecosystems.

Why protect mature and old-growth forests?

In short: carbon. While all forests sequester carbon as they grow, older and larger trees represent an existing store of carbon in their biomass and soil. Research by Woodwell Climate scientists on carbon stocks in a sample of federally managed U.S. forests found that while larger trees in mature stands constitute a small fraction of all trees, they store between 41 and 84 percent of the total carbon stock of all trees.

An analysis of mature and old growth forests across the country found that approximately 76 percent (20.8 million hectares) of these forests are unprotected from logging. This represents an amount of carbon roughly equivalent to 1 quarter of the US’s annual fossil fuel emissions.

Although younger forests grow faster proportionally, they are not adding as much carbon in a single year as older forests with large trees. Additionally, mature forests continue to pack away carbon year over year in their soils, which is largely protected from effects of disturbance. Cutting down a mature forest creates a “carbon debt” that can take decades—centuries in some cases—to recoup, and in the meantime those mature trees are no longer sequestering carbon each year.

“Forests are like naturally occurring factories, delivering to the planet the unique service of carbon sequestration. Trees of all sizes, but particularly large old trees, are the equivalent of warehouses where the goods produced—tons of carbon—are stored over time,” says Woodwell Climate Carbon Program Director, Dr. Wayne Walker. “Like any warehouse where valuable goods are stored, these natural carbon reserves deserve all the protection we can provide. Their loss could effectively bankrupt our efforts to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.”

Defining mature and old-growth forest

Protecting mature forests requires them to be identified and mapped, which was part of the impetus behind the government’s forest inventory. But what actually is a mature forest?

Definitions of “mature” and “old-growth” differ, with no one universally accepted definition. Refining scientific understanding of what constitutes a mature forest has implications for either expanding or reducing the area of forest considered for protection.

In one study of U.S. forest carbon stocks, Woodwell Climate researchers and collaborators outlined a measure of forest maturity based on both the age that the tree canopy in a forest becomes 100 percent closed, called “Culmination of Net Primary Productivity,” and tree diameter size. Across 11 U.S. forests analyzed, the age at which a forest is considered mature ranged from 35 years in Appalachian forests to 75 in Arizona. “Old-growth” represents a smaller subset of mature forests having older and larger trees.

The new inventory from the DOI and USDA uses a slightly narrower definition of maturity, wherein the lower bound occurs when regeneration has begun underneath the canopy. This results in a slightly smaller estimation of the amount of mature and old-growth forests in the US—yet still approximately 63 percent of the total area of federally managed forests.

Other definitions can be based on models that take into account measurements of forest structure like canopy height, canopy cover, and biomass. Another study, co-authored by Woodwell Climate Assistant Scientist, Dr. Brendan Rogers, used these features to determine that federal lands contain the largest concentration of the country’s mature and old growth forests.

Differences in those definitions are important, because forest policy debates surrounding the responsible management of these forests depend on adequately identifying them, particularly mature forests, which are much more loosely defined than old-growth.

“I think the discussion is almost more about what to do with mature forests, as opposed to old-growth,” says Woodwell Climate senior scientist, Dr. Richard Birdsey, who worked in the U.S. Forest Service for four decades. “Mature forests are at a younger stage of growth—trees would be smaller, although they could still be substantial in size and very profitable to harvest. So the question here is whether to let those forests grow into old-growth characteristics, or to start harvesting them for wood products.”

What do we do with our mature forests?

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.

According to Dr. Birdsey, the largest threat facing mature and old-growth forests in the U.S. is logging, which is a threat that humans can reduce instantly, simply by changing policy. A change that would make those forests more resilient to other threats in the long run.

“Others might argue that climate change or wildfire are more significant threats,” says Dr. Birdsey. “Older forests with larger trees are more resistant to those threats—but not more resistant to chainsaws. That’s a human decision.”

A recent paper in Nature Climate Change has laid out a “protect, manage, restore” framework for making decisions about what natural climate solutions to pursue, and the highest priority is always to protect carbon where it is already stored. U.S. policies have made some recent progress in this direction through the enforcement of the roadless rule on Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, prohibiting road-building and industrial logging on the 9 million acre temperate rainforest. But there is still further to go to capitalize on the carbon storage potential of the U.S.’s mature forests.

Federally managed forests contain more high-carbon trees than other lands, so the opportunity for increased carbon storage within them is greatest. Woodwell Climate Distinguished Visiting Scientist, Dr. William Moomaw, helped coin the term “proforestation” to refer to the strategy of letting forests continue to grow as a carbon solution. In order to achieve that, he says, mature forests have to be protected.

“The next steps should be to provide legal protection of as much of these high-carbon forests as possible,” says Dr. Moomaw. “These are public lands that should serve the public good, and reducing climate change is a public good that we should pursue as the highest priority.”

Switching light bulbs, recycling and composting, biking to school—to high school seniors Alice Fan, Amelia Kane, and Simone Colburn, these sorts of sustainability solutions being taught in their classes just didn’t feel like enough. 

“We were seeing a gap in climate education,” says Fan. “We would learn about the greenhouse gas effect, and about the polar bears, but the curriculum wouldn’t really touch on the human aspects of climate change, like environmental justice, redlining, and all the systemic issues that bring a different lens to climate change.”

Fan, Colburn, Kane, and some of their fellow students had come to understand the true scope of the issue through their individual interests and participation in activist and environmental groups outside of school. But the more involved they became, the wider the gap grew between them and their classmates. So they decided to take on the role of educators themselves, founding the Spring Forward Climate Education organization.

Spring Forward’s mission is to bring those larger conversations about climate justice into elementary and middle school classrooms, after-school programs, and summer camps. The organization’s high school members have developed lesson plans and activities that they lead for their younger peers. Mina Subramanian, Spring Forward’s Partnerships Coordinator, says climate education taught by students can be more impactful than receiving information from adults.

“I joined a climate organization before Spring Forward, but it was mostly adults. I felt like in that space, I didn’t have the voice that I wanted to,” Subramanian says. “But at Spring Forward, being youth led, it is such a different environment. We’re all on the same playing field and we all empower each other.”

Spring Forward has also begun branching out from classroom education, to develop additional materials that inform on broader climate topics. Collaborating with Woodwell, the team has created a policy brief around the issue of balancing solar panel installation with other land use considerations.

Solar panels require large clear tracts of land with good sun exposure. Some existing municipal development plans indicate their installation on land currently covered with forests or other vegetation. Forests are some of the best natural carbon sinks and sacrificing them in a rush to install renewable infrastructure is counterproductive. The Spring Forward team wanted to make the policy more accessible to the general public. 

“We need both solar and forests working together—not in competition—if we are going to be successful in addressing the climate crisis,” says Woodwell Carbon Program Director, Wayne Walker, who worked with the Spring Forward team on the brief. “Educating on these complex topics is so important, and the collaboration with Spring Forward offered me the unique opportunity not only to share some of my knowledge with the students, but also to play a small part in helping the students educate others.”

As the group continues to grow and evolve with new members and partnerships, they hope to temper the sting of a sometimes scary topic by showing both kids and adults that they have a voice they can use to make a difference. Talking about the problem helps everyone develop a path forward. 

“In our lessons we try to give information even if it’s scary, but then say ‘okay, well what can you do about it?’” says Colburn. “And one of our big beliefs is that if kids are getting weighed down by information, knowing that they can have power and that they can be influential is really helpful.”