Climate Feedback

No forest too wide or mountain too high in the fight against global warming

From undersea meetings by Maldives’ ministers to debates in the US Senate, talk of climate change is echoing around every corner of the globe. The message: needs are great and growing fast, while resources remain few and far between.

The task awaiting negotiators headed for Copenhagen this December – to agree a global treaty for saving the planet – is daunting, particularly with hopes of achieving the task in Copenhagen fading rapidly.

But one person eagerly anticipating the conference is Greg Asner, a tropical ecologist with the Carnegie Institution for Science’s global ecology department in Stanford, California. For the past decade Greg and his team have been stationed in the Peruvian Amazon, designing and testing a system that can accurately calculate the amount of carbon locked up in forests and track changes over time. Jeff Tollefson journeyed to the Amazon and reports on Asner’s work in the latest issue of Nature.

Asner intends to present his work at a meeting on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD), planned to coincide with the negotiations in Copenhagen. If Asner can prove that the carbon in rainforests can be quantified and monitored effectively, it may bolster efforts to include a strong forest carbon component in an international agreement. Tropical deforestation accounts for 20% of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions and there is broad agreement that the new treaty should include a forest protection element. This element, REDD, would allow developed nations to meet emissions reduction targets in part by paying tropical countries to preserve their forests.

Asner is focused on developing a method for advanced biomass monitoring that meets criteria set out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and that is quick and cheap enough for countries to perform their own analyses before moving on to long-term carbon monitoring. The system being developed involves combining satellite images of biodiversity with laser data from flights over the forest. The lasers send out 70,000 pulses every second and can accurately measure biomass type and density. To calibrate and verify the data, Asner and his team are taking ground measurements of the dimensions of any tree more than 50-millimetres thick for an area roughly the size of Denmark. This ground-based method is currently considered the ‘gold-standard’. Asner is desperately hoping to change that by employing more sophisticated techniques that measure biomass from the air.

Also in the latest edition of Nature, Anjali Nayar, an International Development Research Centre fellow at Nature, reports from Bhutan, a kingdom under severe threat of climate impacts. A video of her trip is available here:

The first recipient of money the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s Least Developed Countries Fund (LCDF), Bhutan has thus far received US$3.5 million and could do with much more.

Located between India and Tibet, the kingdom contains 983 glaciers and 2,794 glacial lakes in an area the size of Switzerland, making it extremely vulnerable to the risk of flooding with the onset of warming. In 1994, a moraine at the base of the Luggye glacier was burst by a huge volume of collected meltwater, sending 18 million cubic metres of extra water down the Pho River. The flood killed 21 people, razing fields and settlements downstream

A similar moraine between the nearby Thorthormi and Rapstreng glacial lakes could give way as early as 2010, according to a study by Hermann Häusler of the University of Vienna. This would unleash around 53 million cubic metres of water down the same river – into an area that now houses hospitals, schools and a part-finished $760-million hydropower dam project.

The money received from the UN funds is being used to deepen and widen the outlet channel from the Thorthormi glacier so it can better handle excess meltwater. But experts do not know if this will be enough and progress is painstakingly slow in the remote and mountainous location: nine days travel from capital Thimpu. Further support is desperately needed, as every lake in the country requires some level of attention, with 25 considered to be in a critical state.

If an agreement is reached in Copenhagen, it would support initiatives like REDD and the LDCF, helping vulnerable countries prepare against the future.

Stephanie Baudains


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