Danielle Williams: On Deforestation and Climate Change


Over the last couple weeks you’ve
been hearing from Danielle
, an employee in National Geographic’s Research, Conservation, and
Exploration division, member of the National Geographic Green Initiatives Subcomittee, and fellow with the HSBC/Earthwatch Institute Climate Change Program. During this Tuesday celebration of physical geography and environments, Danielle
employs her newfound field-knowledge and skills to break down the science of deforestation and its impacts on climate
change for the rest of us “laymen.”

November 16, 2008


My Understanding of the Science Behind this
Research Project, and Its Global Importance


With a few rainy fall days of great “citizen science” and a
lot of discussions under our bright orange vests (rather than belts), our team
completed our fellowship as part of the HSBC/Earthwatch Climate Partnership.
There is a great deal to do, now that we have been empowered by our experience.
That being said, however, I feel that the last week has allowed me time to
really process and simplify the science behind this project in a “big picture”
kind of way, and I’d like to share my perspective on it to help others
visualize its importance on a global scale. My caveat: I am not a scientist,
but only hope to somewhat accurately describe this piece of the much bigger
climate change puzzle.

Our team of ten local citizens was one of many more to come who are
participating in a long-term forest research project headed by Dr. Geoffrey
Parker that began with a question: “How does forest management influence stem
(woody plants) and carbon dynamics in forests of different developmental
stages?” That’s a standard scientific research question for you, so let me put
it in another way: “Why are forests important to the service of our planet,
when it comes to the delicate balance of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in our
atmosphere that affect our long-term climate?”

Dr. Parker told us that in most of the eastern United States, the “original”
forests have been cut down at least once, if not twice over the last couple
hundred years. You can imagine that just in the Chesapeake Bay region alone there are thousands of acres of fractured and
mature (120+ years old) forests next to newer, intermediate age plots, next to
more recently logged plots, etc. In terms of what this project is studying,
that means we are taking a look at a variety of species of trees over several
plots of forested land that fall within these different categories of age and

As part of our fieldwork, our team was helping to set the baseline data for the
long term project by taking measurements of each tree’s diameter (at 1.3m from
the trunk), canopy class (relative height compared to the rest of the canopy
around the tree) and damage class (missing major branches, standing dead,
etc.). Added to this, it’s also important to separate the leaf litter (bags of
leaves, twigs and whatever else was collected within a subplot) by its species
type and weigh it to most accurately measure each plot’s biomass – with lots of
math equations processed by the scientists, of course!

Read a more detailed
description of the science behind deforestation and its impacts on climate
change at Danielle’s
Earthwatch Blog

Imagine for a moment standing under the canopy of your favorite forest, whether
it’s in the eastern United States, the Amazon, somewhere in the Sierra Nevadas, Costa Rica, Russia, or China. Visualize the diversity of life that it holds – the birds, flowers, insects,
mammals – and try to imagine seeing the trees and plants “breathing” in the
carbon dioxide and storing it in their leaves and massive trunks, then
“breathing” it out again by dropping their leaves and branches and letting the
fungi and other microorganisms take over their part of the process
(decomposition), then returning that carbon to the air or ground again for the
trees to take up over the next season, under their canopy of leaves. The forest
and all its players are just doing their jobs, and willingly.

Now imagine that same forest being cut to the ground or burned within the span
of a few hours or days – as compared to how much time it took to grow and how
many iterations of the carbon cycle it’s been through. As a result, the forest
(or what’s left of it) no longer acts effectively as a carbon sink. It may be
an open wasteland of tree stumps, organic debris and stirred up soil, exposed
to the wind and sun. That once forested land has now become a carbon source, a
source of carbon that once was a container or sink for carbon, now released
liberally into the atmosphere. That whole amazing carbon cycle has been broken
and opened up to release all that stored carbon into the atmosphere as CO2.

And “Voila!” As with each readers’ imagination, so too are many thousands of
acres of forest now being burned or destroyed at alarming rates in ways that
release tons of carbon, contributing to the positive feedback mechanism – at an
exponential rate – of increasing GHGs and thus increasing our global
temperature through human actions (for more information on sinks and sources, http://www.nerc.ac.uk/research/issues/climatechange/carbon.asp).

So, by studying the forested plots of land around the North American Regional
Climate Center, we can hope to gain greater insight as to how forests of
different ages and subject to different types of management really process,
release or effectively control the dynamic life cycle of carbon. With four
other forested sites to study in the United Kingdom, China, India and Brazil,
the Earthwatch/ HSBC Climate Partnership is helping to collect global forest
data that will play an important role, I’m sure, in determining how we can
effectively and sustainably manage our forests for the future. Forests, after
all, play an important ecosystem service for our planet by helping to regulate
the greenhouse gases and ultimately the global temperature that affects the
health of the earth and its people.

Make sure to check
back on the blog Thursday for our focus on “global hotspots.” We’ll include
community action plans from Danielle and her fellow researchers with the “Sustainable Forest Management in a Changing Climate” project, as well as guest posts from Joanna
Cyprys, currently exploring Antarctica with the Global Nomads Group, Ozlem Esckiocak of the UN Foundation’s Youth Climate Pledge initiative, and
National Geographic’s own Ford Cochran, a geologist who describes calescent economic and environmental conditions in Iceland.

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