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.

At COP28, Woodwell Climate Research Center and the Ministry of the Environment and Sustainable Development (MEDD) of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have jointly released a new report, From Risk to Resilience: A strategic assessment of challenges and solutions to scaling climate mitigation and adaptation in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“This is a very important tool,” said Benjamin Toirambe, DRC Secretary-General of the Environment. “There’s a real need for this, you can’t simply be feeling your way in the dark. If today the Minister of Agriculture has a risk analysis, he can guide his decision making based on what is happening in the field.”

“It really points towards the need to make much more critical investments in basic science to support this type of model, and support more efficient policy implementation,” said Dr. Glenn Bush, Associate Scientist at Woodwell Climate Research Center. 

The report is based on a collaboration that began last year between Woodwell Climate and MEDD to generate a localized, customized, cost-free climate risk assessment. It examines a range of climate change threats to forests and agriculture in the region – including drought, heat stress, agricultural yields, extreme precipitation, flooding, and wildfire – and finds that these threats necessitate swift climate adaptation action, particularly by enhancing carbon credit integrity and scaling finance mechanisms in order to fund necessary adaptation efforts and support forest preservation as a critical natural climate solution.

“I am very pleased that the report has been adopted by both parties,” said Joseph Zambo, who facilitated the collaboration as Woodwell Climate’s focal point in the DRC. “This report comes at a good time for the DRC, as the country is engaged in several processes to combat climate change. This report will serve as a sustainable and real support to prevent climate risks and find ways to find solutions at scale.”

“The DRC’s landscapes are one of the greatest insurances against future climate risks—a natural climate solution to prevent further warming and avoid the worst harm from climate change. Carbon markets represent one of the most important and effective tools we have to protect them,” said Dr. Bush.

To support disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation planning, the report offers policy recommendations, including: creating more stable and reliable observational networks and data records; scaling up agricultural research and extension services; improving field inventory and remote sensing monitoring systems; and building community awareness of climate impacts. Additionally, specific policy recommendations related to financing include: 

“What’s particularly interesting is the comparison we have done with the initial data provided by NDCs and compared to forecasting and models used by Woodwell,” said Professor Onesphore Mutshail Kuval of the University of Kinshasa. “This made it possible for us in DRC to propose certain types of adaptation in the context of the carbon market, based on risk assessments provided by this forecasting model. We have a whole series of proposed adaptation measures, and these were devised in conjunction with the models provided to us.”

The report was officially released during the 2023 United Nations climate change conference, or Conference of the Parties, COP28, at a panel event, The intersection between adaptation and mitigation, and implications for developing the New Climate Economy. The event was co-hosted by Woodwell Climate and the DRC, and focused on discussing the report’s findings in the context of emerging priority policy and management pathways to a green economy.

The full report can be read here.

Transcript edited for grammar and clarity.

Sarah Ruiz: Fire. It’s a transformative force on any landscape, scorching and destroying, but often making space for new life. It also plays a part in transforming our global climate, releasing stored carbon from forests and other ecosystems that we simply cannot afford to add to our atmosphere. I’m here today with three of Woodwell Climate Research Center’s experts on fire and climate change: Dr. Manoela Machado, Dr. Brendan Rogers, and Dr. Zach Zobel. We’re here to discuss how fire fits into the climate change puzzle, as both a symptom and the cause of the warming climate. Consider this a “fireside chat” of sorts. Let’s begin.

Brendan, you work primarily in boreal forests, where fires are a natural part of the landscape, correct?

Dr. Brendan Rogers: Yes, that’s right. So even though boreal forests are in the north and they’re cold and damp for a lot of the year, the surface vegetation in the soil, the soil organic matter can dry out pretty dramatically in the summer. This fuel, as we call it in fire science, often all it takes is just one single ignition source to generate a pretty large wildfire. Humans certainly ignite fires, but still most of the burned area in boreal forests is coming from lightning ignitions.

Fire is also an important natural process in boreal forests. Many of the fires are what we call stand replacing—meaning they’re high intensity, they kill most of the trees, at least in Alaska and Canada. This initiates the process of forest succession, with often different types of vegetation, and tree species playing pretty key ecological roles. But fire regimes are changing and intensifying with climate change, taking us outside the range of what we would consider our natural variability that we’ve seen in these systems for millennia.

SR: Now, Manu, you work in the Amazon rainforest, where fire is never a natural part of the landscape. Can you explain what Kind of role fire plays in a tropical rainforest?

Dr. Manoela Machado: The Amazon biome did not evolve with fire pressure selecting for strategies of survival, which means that the plants are not adapted to this disturbance. Fire is a very powerful tool used to transform the landscape and has been used for millennia. Traditional and Indigenous communities still use it for agricultural purposes, but that’s not the fire that we see on the news, making headlines of “fire crisis in the Amazon.”

Those catastrophic events with lots of smoke in the atmosphere, they’re normally related to deforestation fires, which are fires used after clear cutting to clear out biomass and use the land for cattle ranching and other agricultural purposes. Those fires can escape into forest areas. So the ignition sources are always human—there are no natural ignition sources in the Amazon forest.

SR: With climate change, these dynamics are shifting in many places, as drier and hotter conditions make it easier for fires to spark. Zach, could you talk to us a little bit about what makes a forest susceptible to fire, and how climate change might be affecting that?

Dr. Zach Zobel: Fire weather is a given set of atmospheric parameters that indicate—if there was an ignition source—fire would be able to grow and spread rapidly. What we do is we model what is known as the fire weather index. This index consists of four different atmospheric variables, and those are: temperature (the hotter it is, the more likely vegetation is going to dry out quicker); relative humidity (the lower the humidity, the more rapidly vegetation can dry out); precipitation, both backward looking (“has it rained a lot recently”) and today; and wind speed, because once a fire starts, if the wind is adequately high, that’s when it’s going to spread.

We take those variables out of the climate models, and we model it—what it looks like historically, versus what it’s going to look like in the future. And what we find is that in several fire regimes, most of them actually, these “high fire risk days” are starting to rapidly increase.

We see it especially in the Mediterranean, Brazil, eastern Australia, the Western United States, in several parts of Africa. Over the next 30 years, we think these high fire risk days are going to increase on the order of a couple of weeks in some locations like the Western US, to upwards of one to two months in the Mediterranean and Brazil. And that’s pretty significant, when you think about how historically these days only occurred maybe one week a year. 

SR: So what are some of the risk outcomes posed by those more frequent, intense fires, globally?

BR: More frequent intense fires are changing the ecology of many boreal forests in some cases, leading to transition from forest to grassland or shrubland, which of course impacts the resident animals. But there are also large impacts on humans. The smoke from large wildfire seasons is a direct threat to human health, and rural and especially Indigenous communities often feel the largest impacts. Additionally, in areas of permafrost, which is ground that is frozen year after year, fires can lead to permafrost thaw for many years. That can often destabilize the ground leading to ground collapse, presenting a hazard to people that are living in these areas.

MM: I think the Amazon has many similarities with the Arctic, despite being very different environments. Despite not being natural, fires have become a recurrent issue that coincides with the dry season, which then creates what we call the burning season. Any fire is damaging to an environment that is not adapted to it. So there’s the immediate release of huge amounts of carbon when that biomass is burning, and there’s the delayed mortality that understory fires cause, so there’s continued emissions of carbon as well. That can cause a shift in species composition.

And fire also begets fire, which means that forest canopy that is disrupted allows more wind and sun to penetrate the forest, which creates drier microclimates. And tree mortality increases the fuels on the forest floor as well. So a degraded forest becomes even more vulnerable to future burning. As Brendon mentioned as well, there are several studies linking the burning season with higher hospitalization rates of people with respiratory illnesses as well.

SR: So, then what do these changes mean in terms of fire risk? How much of what we’re seeing now is on par with or accelerated compared to what climate models have been showing?

ZZ: Manu, and Brendan just hit it right on the head. What we’re seeing is the driver of these increasing high fire risk days, is largely because the length of the dry season is increasing in many of these fire regimes. Since they talked about the tropics and the Arctic, I’ll use California as an example. The dry season is typically from April to November or December. What makes California almost even more unique is that if this extends later and later into November and December, that’s when the Santa Ana winds start to pick up. So we found that that’s what’s happening in California, the wildfire season is expanding into later in the season. And that’s when their seasonal winds start, ahead of the rainy season.

In terms of risk to life and property, there’s also another factor that I think is a little underappreciated. (and this is happening in the Mediterranean and Australia and some of the major spots I talked about, maybe less so in Brazil, but Chile as well) is people are moving into areas that traditionally have had wildfires, even in the absence of climate change. And so, as we continue to build up property, let’s say in California, in the wildland urban interface as it’s known, that’s when you start to see things unfold, like we saw in 2019, in Australia and the Camp Fire as well in California.

When we talk with our partners, we always show them how rapidly the climate models are viewing this increase in fire weather days. We definitely caveat it by saying, Here’s what the observations are showing us. The climate models aren’t even keeping up with how quickly wildfire risk days are increasing. So we view it as is “this is the best-case scenario for the next 30 years.” And the best-case scenario is scary enough. And that’s kind of the message we send to the people that we work with when presenting this data.

SR: Not only do increased fires have immediate ecological and safety impacts. They also represent a significant risk to our ability to achieve climate goals. Forests are one of our most valuable carbon sinks, and keeping them healthy and standing is essential to curbing warming. Let’s talk a little bit about how fires pose a threat to that.

BR: So boreal forest fires release some of the largest amounts of carbon per unit area for any biome on Earth. And this is because most of the fuel is coming from the soil organic matter or Duff. And most of the climate impacts are from CO2 and methane. But actually, there’s a whole host of gases that are released into the atmosphere. And what’s worse, in areas of permafrost, those fires can induce permafrost thaw and degradation that can also release even more greenhouse gases over the ensuing years. This is what triggers the global feedback mechanisms from boreal fires—climate warming, leading to more fires, which leads to more net emissions of greenhouse gases that further fuels climate warming.

When we combine the carbon release estimates from intensifying fire regimes with the interactions between fire and permafrost thaw, the numbers are somewhat sobering. And they may impact our ability to meet the global temperature targets such as one and a half and two degrees above pre-industrial as set out in the Paris Climate Agreement. These impacts are largely not accounted for in climate models or remaining carbon budgets. So, one big question is what can we actually do about it?

I first want to stress that the fires themselves are not the cause of the problem. They’re a system response to warming. So ultimately, the solution is reducing and eliminating fossil fuel emissions that are warming our climate. That said, we do actually have some level of control over boreal fires through fire management control that we don’t have, for example, when it comes to other bigger system feedbacks. Our group has done some work to show that boreal fire management and specifically suppression of fires when they’re first ignited and relatively small, could be a cost effective way to keep carbon in the ground and protect against rapid permafrost thaw. Actually recently, for the first time, a land management agency in the US has adopted these ideas and designated land in Alaska to be protected from fire purely for the purpose of protecting permafrost and carbon. Of course, there are many, many considerations that come into play with changing land management, for example, the ecological impacts, and of course, the people that live on or near that land, including indigenous communities. So these are really complex decisions. But ultimately, as we’re hopefully headed down a path towards global net zero emissions, towards climate stabilization and eventual climate cooling. I think that limiting boreal fire emissions should be considered as a natural climate solution that also has many co-benefits for the habitat, for human health, and the economy.

SR: So Manu, is fire management also a potential solution for the Amazon?

MM: Um, I don’t think it’s a solution, I think is something that exists, but also kind of in tune with what Brendan was saying that fire is not the core of the issue. In the Amazon, deforestation is the major issue regarding climate change in general. So, this process of land grabbing and clearing for cattle ranching and cropland is the driver of deforestation and for as long as we have that, we will have these catastrophic fire events. These deforestation fires and the leakage that comes from that into forest areas, those are not things that firefighters can face with safety. These are intentional fires, and they’re part of the deforestation process. So, the path to ending these fires is through tackling deforestation. The other types of fires such as pasture fires, forest fires that are not in those areas of like frontier of deforestation, they can be dealt with through prevention and combat actions, such as preparing firebreaks ahead of the expected burning season, and having well trained, well equipped brigades ready for action. And that’s something that we’ve been trying to do as well. We’ve been providing GIS training to Indigenous fire brigades across the Amazon and developed some other partnerships as well with spatial analysis and trying to help out with science too, but the core issue is not fire it’s deforestation.

SR: So, combating fires and learning to manage them when they arise is important, as well as working with communities on the ground to do so. But the root cause of climate change lies in the vast amount of carbon emissions that are released by human activities. Ultimately, bringing fires under control will require mitigating emissions and curbing climate change, otherwise, forest fires might just become too hot to handle. Thank you, everyone, for sharing your perspectives on fire and climate change with us today.

What’s New?

Recent research has quantified the cumulative impact of dams on Brazil’s native savanna ecosystem, the Cerrado. The study created an index of the direct and indirect impacts of constructing hydroelectric facilities on both the rivers being dammed and the surrounding ecosystem.

While often offered as a cleaner alternative to fossil fuels, dams can have severe environmental impacts ranging from deforestation to obstruction of fish migrations, water pollution, and even direct greenhouse gas emissions resulting from inundation of the surrounding area. This study assessed these effects cumulatively, weighting them more heavily if multiple dams were present in a single watershed.

“For freshwater systems, there’s not the equivalent of a deforestation rate. We don’t have an easy metric of ecosystem damage. So this study was one way of building a method for assessing the unintended consequences of installing a dam in a Cerrado watershed,” says Woodwell Water program director Dr. Marcia Macedo, who collaborated on the paper.

The study puts forward a new Dam Saturation Index (DSI) for the region to approximate the environmental impacts of existing dams. High-saturation watersheds were concentrated in the central and western portions of the biome, and most planned dams are located in sensitive areas of native vegetation with little protection.

Understanding hydropower in Brazil

Hydropower is big in Brazil—66% of the country gets some or all of their energy from it. Harnessing the power of a river is often the easiest means of electricity production in rural and remote areas. However, large hydroelectric plants are more often used as a means of infrastructural support for extractive industries like mining, rather than to expand access to electricity for rural citizens. Conflicts have already arisen between communities and hydroelectric plants.

Conflict over water usage in the Cerrado is expected to increase as the region continues to get hotter and dryer due to human-caused climate change. Land use change in the biome has accelerated the impacts of climate change, removing the cooling and moisture-retaining effects of natural vegetation.

“There are a lot of dams already, and many more planned, and it’s only going to get more contentious as climate change continues,” Dr. Macedo says. “In the northern and eastern part of the Cerrado, it’s already quite dry. We’re already seeing conflict over water and these reservoirs could just make that worse as upstream locations are able to withhold water from those downstream.”

What this means for the Cerrado

The Cerrado has historically not garnered as much attention, or as many demands for its protection, as the neighboring Amazon rainforest. Less than 10% of the Cerrado is considered protected, and many of those protections are biased toward terrestrial habitats and species. Lack of research into the full impact of hydropower on the watersheds of the Cerrado has left the region vulnerable to unchecked development. Some dams have even been built in areas otherwise strictly protected. Dr. Macedo hopes this study will encourage a different attitude towards freshwater resources.

“There is a question of how we can innovate thinking about protecting freshwater systems, especially under climate change. They’re so important, and there are so many resources—fisheries and clean water and more—that come from these systems,” Dr. Macedo says.

This study focused on large hydroelectric dams, but Dr. Macedo notes that there are many more small dams, built to serve individual farms, that also impact the flow of headwater streams. Ongoing research is focused on understanding the cumulative impacts of dams of all sizes on tropical watersheds.

This study focused on large hydroelectric dams, but Dr. Macedo notes that there are many more small dams, built to serve individual farms, that also impact the flow of headwater streams. Ongoing research is focused on understanding the cumulative impacts of dams of all sizes on tropical watersheds.

What’s New?

The Cerrado is a tropical savanna located just southeast of the Amazon rainforest. This biome is a patchwork of forests, savannas, and grasslands, nearly as biodiversity rich as the Amazon yet suffering more due to lax environmental protections. Over 46% of its original land cover has already been cleared for crops or pastures. A recent study assessed the impacts of this conversion on the temperature and water cycling in the region.

The study found that clearing of natural ecosystems resulted in increased land surface temperatures and reduced evapotranspiration — water evaporated to the atmosphere both from soils and as a byproduct of plant growth. Across the biome, land use changes caused a 10% reduction in water being cycled into the atmosphere annually, and almost 1 degree C of warming. Where native savanna vegetation was cleared, temperatures increased by 1.9C and the water recycled to the atmosphere decreased by up to 27%. These changes don’t take into account the additional effects of atmospheric warming from greenhouse gas emissions. 

The study also projects forward three potential future scenarios based on different levels of environmental protection. The worst-case scenario assumes an additional 64 million hectares of both legal and illegal deforestation, which would leave just 20% of native vegetation in the Cerrado by 2050. If illegal deforestation is prevented but legal deforestation still advances, an additional 28 million hectares of deforestation would continue to warm and dry out the region. Only in the most optimistic scenario, with enforced zero deforestation policies and restoration of over 5 million hectares of illegally cleared vegetation, would the impacts of past clearing begin to reverse.

“If we continue down this path of weakening environmental policies, we’re probably heading towards an uncontrolled increase in deforestation,” says Ariane Rodrigues, researcher at the University of Brasilia and lead author on the paper. “As a result, we could reach almost 1 C of temperature increase by 2050 from land use change alone. If we add the estimated temperature increase from global greenhouse gas emissions, we will have a critical situation for food production, biodiversity, water and wildfire risk, affecting areas located way beyond the biome’s limits.” 

Understanding Land Use in the Cerrado

Incentives for large-scale commercial agriculture in the Cerrado date back to the 1970s. Despite its high biodiversity, only 11% of the Cerrado is protected and technological advancements provided favorable conditions for agriculture to expand rapidly. 

The half of the biome that remains unconverted is considered prime agricultural land. The Cerrado alone is responsible for 12% of global soybean production and 10% of global beef exports. Growing demand for these agricultural products is pushing farmers and ranchers to expand into the Matopiba region in the Northeast Cerrado — one of the largest remaining areas of undisturbed native vegetation. 

Hotspots of reduced evapotranspiration and increased temperatures can already be seen in areas of Matopiba with intensifying agricultural activity. This means that farms will rely even more heavily on irrigation to combat drought, a strategy made less viable by the warming and drying caused by agriculture itself.

“That is the driest portion of the Cerrado, where there’s the most climate risk already,” says paper co-author and Woodwell Water program director, Dr. Marcia Macedo. “You can see that in the data — it’s getting hotter, and there’s less evapotranspiration, so we are really intensifying conflicts in areas that are already on the edge.” 

What this Means for Protecting the Cerrado

The results of the paper highlight the urgent need for a paradigm shift that values the additional services the Cerrado provides beyond just crop production. Not only does it house unique ecosystems, but it plays a pivotal role in modulating the climate of the region. In the best-case scenario evaluated by the paper, zero-deforestation and restoration policies could avoid extensive warming and drying and begin compensating for the past transformation of Cerrado landscapes. Continued conversion of natural vegetation will jeopardize both biodiversity and agricultural stability in the Cerrado, as crops struggle to be productive under hotter and drier conditions. 

Already, conflicts over water usage and irrigation are occurring in western Bahía state. As the region warms and dries, competition for a scarce resource will become more common and large-scale agriculture will become much less viable.

“We’re making some risky decisions in terms of land use,” says Dr. Macedo, “We’re losing a lot for short term gains in crop production, often in areas that will struggle to sustain large-scale agriculture as climate changes.”

The Amazon rainforest is one of the planet’s best natural climate solutions. Roughly 123 billion tons of carbon are estimated to be stored in the trees and soils of the Amazon and, if protected, it has the power to continue sequestering billions of tons of carbon each year.

But that irreplaceable carbon sink is under steady threat from a cycle of deforestation, fire, and drought that is both exacerbated by and contributing to climate change. Preliminary analysis from Woodwell of last year’s data has outlined that the most vulnerable regions of the Amazon are where drought and deforestation overlap.

2021 data shows deforestation drives fire in the Amazon

Unlike temperate or boreal forest ecosystems—or even neighboring biomes in Brazil— fires in the Amazon are almost entirely human caused. Fire is an intrinsic part of the deforestation process, usually set to clear the forest for use as pasture or cropland. Because of this, data on deforestation can provide a good indicator of where ignitions are likely to happen. Drought fans those flames, producing the right conditions for more intense fires that last longer and spread farther. Examining the intersection between drought and deforestation in 2021, Woodwell identified areas of the Amazon most vulnerable to burning.

Areas of deforestation combined with exceptionally dry weather to create high fire risk in northwestern Mato Grosso, eastern Acre, and Rondonia. Although drought conditions shifted across the region throughout the course of the year, deforestation caused fuel to accumulate along the boundaries of protected and agricultural land.

These areas of concentrated fuel showed the most overlap with fires in 2021, indicating that without the ignition source that deforestation provides, fires would be unable to occur, even during times of drought.

In June of 2021, we identified a dangerous and flammable combination of cut, unburned wood and high drought in the municipality of Lábrea, that put it at extreme risk of burning. Data at the end of December of 2021 confirmed this prediction. The observed fire count numbers from NASA showed that last year, Lábrea experienced its worst fire season since 2012.

Fires and climate change form a dangerous feedback loop

As a result of deforestation in 2021, at least 75 million tons of carbon were committed to being released from the Amazon. When that cut forest is also burned, most of the carbon enters the atmosphere in a matter of days or weeks, rather than the longer release that comes from decay.

This fuels warming, which feeds back into the cycle of fire by creating hotter, drier, conditions in a forest accustomed to moisture. Drought conditions weaken unburned forests, especially around the edges of deforestation, which makes them more susceptible to burning and releasing even more carbon to the atmosphere to further fuel warming.

Fire prevention strategies enacted by the current administration over the past 3 years have been insufficient to curb burning in the Amazon, because the underlying cause of deforestation remains unaddressed. Firefighting crews are not sufficiently supported to continue their work in regions like Lábrea that are actively hostile to combating deforestation and fire. If deforestation has occurred, fire will follow. To ensure the safety of both the people and the forests in these high-risk municipalities, the root causes of deforestation must be addressed with stronger and more strategic policies and enforcement.

Woodwell workshop brings Indigenous firefighters to Brasilia

A week-long workshop encourages knowledge sharing between Indigenous Brazilian fire brigades

workshop participants on field trip in Cerrado

On March 28, 2022, firefighters from Indigenous communities across Brazil gathered in Brasília, the country’s capitol, for a week-long geography and cartography workshop. The workshop, a collaboration between the Coordination of Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB) and the Amazon River Basin (COICA), IPAM Amazônia, and Woodwell Climate Research Center, walked participants through the basics of using Global Information Systems technology to monitor and manage their own lands and forests.

Forests and native vegetation on Indigenous lands have been sustainably managed for millenia, and studies have found Indigenous stewardship of forests is an effective measure for preventing deforestation and degradation. Escaped fires can present a threat to forests, and many Indigenous communities have their own brigades that work on detecting and preventing runaway fires. In some places, prescribed burns are used as a tool for shaping and cultivating the land.

Participants attended from Indigenous lands located in a variety of Brazilian landscapes—from the Cerrado to the heart of the Amazon. Despite differences, participants found learning from other Indigenous communities extremely valuable.

“People came with a variety of skill sets,” said Woodwell Water Program Director Dr. Marcia Macedo. “What was most meaningful for participants was seeing other people like them, who do the same work and are also Indigenous people, already dominating material, knowing how to make the maps, and helping others. It gave them confidence that they could also figure it out.”

After a day of introduction to the core concepts of GIS and mapping, participants headed out to Brasília National Park to test their newfound skills. They visited burned areas from both an escaped fire and a prescribed burn, compared the two, marked GPS points, and took pictures. The data gathered on the field trip was used over the next few days to practice making maps. 

“The goal was to not only teach the theory and help them understand the steps for making maps, but also mainly to develop the skills for them to be able to apply to their own lands on their own time,” said Woodwell postdoctoral researcher, Dr. Manoela Machado, who helped organize the event.

The workshop also fostered discussions about the complexity of management when fire can be both a threat and a tool. Because fire manifests differently in different biomes, well-managed fires look different for each community.

“On the final day, we had a discussion of values. Is fire good or bad? For whom—ants, forests, human health?” said Dr. Machado. “You can’t just criminalize fire if it’s a part of traditional knowledge and used as a tool for providing food, for example. So it’s a complex issue.” 

Dr. Machado hopes the conversations will continue. She says the goal would be to host this workshop again to expand its reach, potentially beyond Brazil to include participants in other Amazonian countries.

Success or failure? Woodwell scientists deem COP26 a mixed bag

Glasgow Climate Pact alone is not enough to limit warming to 1.5 C, but COP26 made real progress

hanging globe above the main stage at COP26, photo by Beth Brazil

For the first two weeks of November, diplomats and scientists from around the world descended on Glasgow, Scotland for the United Nations’ 26th annual Conference of Parties—hailed by some as the “last, best, hope” for successful international cooperation on the issue of climate change. Woodwell sent three expert teams to push for more ambitious policies that integrate our understanding of permafrost thaw and socioeconomic risks, and for financial mechanisms to scale natural climate solutions. Here are their thoughts on the successes and failures of this pivotal meeting.

CONSERV panel with (left to right) Marcela Paranhos (IDH), Marcelo Stabile (IPAM), Glenn Bush (Woodwell), and Jenny Xie (Wellington), photo by Anneka Williams

Bold pledges but uncertain follow-through for tropical forests

The conference started off with a bold promise from 100 nations to end deforestation by 2030, accompanied by a pledge of more than $19 billion from both governments and the private sector. Though similar pledges to end deforestation have failed in the past, the funding pledged alongside this one gives reason to be hopeful.

$1.7 billion of the funds are allocated specifically to support Indigenous communities, which Woodwell Assistant Scientist Dr. Glenn Bush believes is a big step forward, though creating policies that are equally supportive will be where the real work gets done.

“It’s particularly welcome that Indigenous peoples are finally being acknowledged as key protectors of forests. The real challenge, however, is how to deliver interlocking policies and actions that really do drive down deforestation globally and scale up nature-based solutions to climate change.”

Dr. Ane Alencar, Director of Science at IPAM Amazônia, said that, for Brazil, half of the solution could come from enforcing existing laws and designating public forests. The other half could come from consolidating protected areas, creating incentives for private land conservation, and providing technical support for sustainable food production.

Dr. Bush also presented the CONSERV project, a joint initiative between IPAM and Woodwell that provides compensation for farmers who preserve forests on their land, above and beyond their legal conservation requirements. Increasing the scale and financing of viable carbon market plans like CONSERV could be crucial in incentivizing greater forest protection.

risk panel with (l-r) Dr. Elena Manaenkov (WMO), Thandie Mwape (IFRC), Dr. Katharine Hayhoe (Nature Conservancy), Nick Bridge (UK Special Rep), and Dr. Li Zheng (Tsinghua University), photo by Natalie Baillargeon

Climate risk a growing focus for governments

During the second week of the conference, Woodwell released a summary report on a series of climate risk workshops with policymakers and climate risk experts from 13 G20 nations. These workshops, conducted in collaboration with the COP26 Presidency and the British government’s Science and Innovation Network, identified challenges to incorporating climate risk assessments into national-level policy, and the report made recommendations for moving from simply making the science available to making it useful for implementation. The report demonstrated a desire from policymakers to get involved in climate risk analyses early in the process, to ensure the information addresses a country’s particular needs.

One success of the conference was the creation of a new climate risk coalition, led by Woodwell. The coalition, composed of 9 other organizations, will produce an annual climate risk assessment for policymakers.

“Understanding the full picture of climate risk is incredibly important when you’re setting policy,” explained Woodwell’s Chief of External Affairs, Dave McGlinchey. “We also heard, however, that the climate risk assessments need to be designed with the policymakers who will eventually use them. This research must speak directly to their interests if it is going to be delivered effectively.”

The increased desire of policymakers to better understand and address oncoming climate risks demonstrates an important shift to viewing climate change as a present problem, rather than solely a future one.

Dr. Rachel Treharne presents in the Cryosphere Pavilion, photo by Dave McGlinchey

Permafrost thaw presents the greatest remaining uncertainty in forecasting emissions

One risk that still isn’t high enough on the COP agenda is rapid Arctic change, particularly permafrost thaw. The Cryosphere Pavilion, hosted by the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative, convened conversations ranging from the implications of permafrost thaw, to environmental justice for Northern Communities and respecting Indigenous knowledge and culture. For Arctic Program Director, Dr. Sue Natali, the Indigenous-led panels were some of the most impactful of the conference. But postdoctoral researcher Dr. Rachael Treharne noted that, no matter how well attended, there’s a difference between being in the Cryosphere Pavilion and being on the main stage.

Woodwell was among a group of organizations pushing to get permafrost emissions the attention it demands. Emissions released by thawing permafrost are currently not accounted for in national commitments, but are potentially equivalent to top emitting countries like the U.S. November 4 at the conference was “Permafrost Day” and each event was at full capacity for the pavilion, signaling growing attention to permafrost science. Woodwell, alongside a dozen polar and mountain interest groups called for even more commitment to the cryosphere conversation at the upcoming Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice U.N. climate conference in Bonn scheduled for June of 2022.

Even with this greater recognition of the seriousness of Arctic climate change, the region and its people are being hit much harder and faster than the rest of the globe. Slow-moving decision-making and talk without follow-through will seriously endanger Arctic residents.

“I left the COP having a very hard time feeling ‘optimistic’, while knowing that the hazards of climate change are already severely impacting Arctic lands, cultural resources, food and water security, infrastructure, homes, and ways of living,” said Dr. Natali. “After repeated years of record-breaking Arctic wildfires, heatwaves, and ice loss, I’m not sure how a 1.5 or 2C warmer world—one in which we know that these events will only get worse—is a reasonable goal.”

Though missing necessary milestones at COP26, climate action is accelerating

Overall, however, the final Glasgow Climate Pact fell short of the ambitious action the world needs in order to limit warming. The deal made several last-minute compromises surrounding the phase out of fossil fuels. COP president Alok Sharma said that, while a future with only 1.5 degrees of warming is possible, it is fragile—dependent on countries keeping to their promises.

Despite this, McGlinchey says there was real progress at COP26. The conference reached a resolution that earned the unanimous agreement of all attending parties. The formal process has also begun to accelerate, with nations required to return with more ambitious climate mitigation plans next year, rather than on the previous five year timeline.

“We are not yet where we need to be,” McGlinchey said. “But we are better off than where we were two weeks ago. Let’s keep going.”