Science Advisory Board Q&A: Chris Swanston

March 13th, 2018|Tags: , , |0 Comments

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By Andrew Bell, American Forests

ASCC Project Investigators Chris Swanston, Brian Palik and Linda Nagel. Credit: Stephen Handler/U.S. Forest Service

Chris Swanston is the Director of the Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science. His studies focus on climate adaptation and forest soil carbon. Together with American Forests and the University of Michigan, he is developing a robust project that will span regional soil data collection, stakeholder engagement and policy development in a best-practices model for addressing climate adaptation head-on.

I had the chance to speak with Chris at length about this exciting new project and his introduction to the Science Advisory Board at American Forests.

What made the opportunity to join the Science Advisory Board at American Forests so enticing?
American Forests is one of the premier forest conservation organizations in the country, so why wouldn’t I want to help guide the science-based decisions and policies that American Forests is pursuing? It was kind of a no-brainer, in other words.

How do you think the relationship with American Forests and with the other Science Advisory Board members can help you and your work?
In my experience on boards like this, I come in certainly with opinions and with experience, but I come in an active learning mode. I hope to gather information and perspectives and other people’s experiences, just as actively as I can give my own. So what I hope to gain is their perspectives and hard-won experience, so I can integrate that information right back into my own program.

Do you see yourself finding a climate science niche within the board?
Certainly, I imagine having a climate science niche. I run an organization that’s one of the premier forest climate adaptation organizations in the country. My group works with hundreds of forest managers. We interact with leadership of federal and state agencies in terms of providing science information from policymaking decisions. We produce the educational and training tools to help people who are working on the ground to make the decision that they need to make in a climate informed-manner. So certainly, I can bring in the experience that we’ve gained through time doing that to this advisory board. And likewise, as we talk to people about their jobs, we may come to them to discuss climate science and trends and how that may interact with their work.

Why is American Forests the perfect partner to embark on a project like this?
I think it worked quite well in the sense that American Forests is rethinking the way that they interact with their stakeholders now and moving into the future. They’re thinking about how they make decisions and how they roll those decisions out; how actively they work with people on the ground, and the ways that they choose to influence policy at multiple levels.

What are some critical gaps in national-level soil data that you would like to narrow with this project?
Soil carbon is something that a lot of people consider to be just a big black box. We know that there are lots of it and it’s often the bulk of the carbon that you’ll find in an ecosystem. Yet when [people] model carbon into the future and integrate that modeling with climate change, and maybe with management, they often just assume that there’s going to be no change to the soil carbon. But we know from years of land management and soil carbon science that even just the management that we do can affect soil carbon. So, it’s very spurious to think that a combination of management and climate change won’t affect soil carbon.

What makes soil carbon data so difficult to collect at the site level?
You’ve got the issue of expense of getting someplace to sample. And then, once you’re there, there’s this issue of how many samples can you possibly take to adequately characterize the variability of the soil within that place… The whole thing has to be insured. So, there are all of these hidden costs that, until you actually pursue one of these campaigns, you don’t realize they’re there. And when you pursue the campaign, you’re crushed by the logistics and the fact that each piece has some cost associated with it.

What’s the most common misconception pertaining to forest soil carbon that you find among private landowners?
I think the biggest hump to get over is to remind them that while it’s not as beautiful as some of the birds that they appreciate or as lucrative as some of the timber that they care about or as gorgeous as the fall colors, the soils their forests grow in are what make all of those other things possible. You’re not going to hold anybody’s attention very long with that conversation, so you’ve got to give them a few key ideas about protecting those soils for the benefit of the other things they really do care about, and that’s what we try to do.

Do you think there’s a way to get landowners to think about and address issues with their forest soils without the aid of monetary incentives?
Yeah, I think so. The most important thing to do is to first ask them what do they care about the most; what do they care about the most in their forest? And then put everything else within the context of what they care about. And as long as we’re listening to them, we can help frame the things that we want to express in terms that they understand and within their value system. It always comes down to listen first, and then place the discussion within their value system.

How do you see this project contributing to American Forests’ work, mission and legacy?
It can help people think about how their conservation can explicitly and intentionally support greenhouse gas mitigation and climate adaptation, and do so in a way that still pursues their identified conservation goals. We’re looking for an “everybody wins” kind of solution.

Learn more about Chris and the expertise he brings to American Forests via the U.S. Forest Service.

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Alsup asks for answers

Some of you might have read about the lawsuit by a number of municipalities (including San Francisco and Oakland) against the major oil companies for damages (related primarily to sea level rise) caused by anthropogenic climate change. The legal details on standing, jurisdiction, etc. are all very interesting (follow @ColumbiaClimate for those details), but somewhat uniquely, the judge (William Alsup) has asked for a tutorial on climate science (2 hours of evidence from the plaintiffs and the defendents). Furthermore, he has posted a list of eight questions that he’d like the teams to answer.

It’s an interesting list. They are quite straightforward (with one or two oddities), but really, pretty much textbook stuff. Andrew Dessler made a quick stab at answering them on Twitter:

But I think we can do better. So what I propose is that we crowd-source the responses. They should be pithy, to the point, with references (not Wikipedia) and, preferentially, accompanied by a good graphic or two. If we can give a credible uncertainty to any numbers in the answer that’s a bonus. I’ve made a start on each, but further voices are needed. Put your response in the comments and I’ll elevate the best ones (giving credit of course) to the main post. If you have any other comments or edits to suggest, feel free to do so. The best of those will also be incorporated.

Alsup’s Questions:

  1. What caused the various ice ages (including the “little ice age” and prolonged cool periods) and what caused the ice to melt? When they melted, by how much did sea level rise?
  2. What is the molecular difference by which CO2 absorbs infrared radiation but oxygen and nitrogen do not?
  3. What is the mechanism by which infrared radiation trapped by CO2 in the atmosphere is turned into heat and finds its way back to sea level?
  4. Does CO2 in the atmosphere reflect any sunlight back into space such that the reflected sunlight never penetrates the atmosphere in the first place?
  5. Apart from CO2, what happens to the collective heat from tail pipe exhausts, engine radiators, and all other heat from combustion of fossil fuels? How, if at all, does this collective heat contribute to warming of the atmosphere?
  6. In grade school, many of us were taught that humans exhale CO2 but plants absorb CO2 and return oxygen to the air (keeping the carbon for fiber). Is this still valid? If so, why hasn’t plant life turned the higher levels of CO2 back into oxygen? Given the increase in human population on Earth (four billion), is human respiration a contributing factor to the buildup of CO2?
  7. What are the main sources of CO2 that account for the incremental buildup of CO2 in the atmosphere?
  8. What are the main sources of heat that account for the incremental rise in temperature on Earth?

Alsup’s Answers:

Note this is an updating text. Last edit: March 11, 2018

  1. The “ice ages” are the dominant cycles of change over the last 2.5 million years (Snyder, 2016):

    Ice age cycles from Snyder (2016)

    They vary in amplitude and phasing (becoming larger in the last 800,000 years), and moving from a dominant 40,000 yr periodicity in the first half to a 100,000 yr periodicity in the later period. It was discovered in the 1970’s that the pacing of the cycles seen in benthic foraminiferal oxygen isotopes was highly correlated to the Milankovitch cycles of orbital variability (Hays, Imbrie and Shackleton, 1976). More recent work has shown that the growth and collapse of the ice sheets is strongly tied to the insolation (Roe, 2006):

    The magnitude of the cycles is strongly modified by various feedbacks, including ice-albedo, dust, vegetation and, of course, the carbon cycle. Estimates of the drivers of global temperature change in the ice ages show that the changes in greenhouse gases (CO2, methane and nitrous oxide) made up about a third of the effect, amplifying the ice sheet changes by about 50% (Köhler et al, 2010).

  2. Greenhouse gases are those that are able to absorb and emit radiation in the infrared, but this is highly dependent on the gases molecular structure. Diatomic molecules (like N2 or O2) have stretching modes (with the distance between the two molecules expanding and contracting), but these require a lot of energy (so they absorb only at higher energies. Vibrational modes in triatomic molecules (H2O, CO2, O3, N2O) or in more complex modecules (CH4, CFCs, HFCs…) are easier to excite and so will absorb and emit lower energy photons (corresponding to the infrared bands, that just happen to be how the Earth loses heat to space).
  3. The Earth’s surface emits infrared radiation. This is absorbed by greenhouse gases, which through collisions with other molecules cause the atmosphere to heat up. Emission from greenhouse gases (in all directions) adds to the warming at the surface.

    The figure shows the easiest description of the greenhouse effect.

  4. Not enough to matter. The latest update to the estimates of radiative forcing of CO2 (Etminan et al., 2016) shows a shortwave effect (i.e. a change in the absorption of downward solar radiation) is about -0.14 W/m2 for CO2 going from 389 to 700 ppm (compared to 3.43W/m2 in longwave forcing) – contributing to about a 4% decrease in the net forcing.
  5. Direct heat generated by the total use of fossil fuels and other forms of energy adds up to about 18TW [IEA,2017]. Spread over the planet that is 0.04W/m2. Compared to anthropogenic forcings since 1750 of about 2.29±1.1W/m2 [IPCC AR5, Figure SPM 5], it’s about 1/100th the size. Locally however (say in cities or urban environments), this can be more concentrated and have a bigger impact.
  6. All animals (including humans) breathe in oxygen and exhale CO2. The carbon in the exhaled CO2 comes from the food that the animals have eaten, which comes (ultimately) from carbon that plants have taken from the atmosphere during photosynthesis. So respiration is basically carbon neutral (it releases CO2 to the atmosphere that came from the atmosphere very recently). Note that any net change in biomass (whether trees, or cows or even humans) does affect atmospheric CO2, but the direct impact of human population growth is tiny even though the indirect effects are huge. For scale, the increase of 3 billion people over the last 40 years, is equivalent to:

    0.185 (fraction of carbon by mass) * 80 kg (average mass of a human) * 3 billion (additional humans) * 10-3 (conversion to GtC) / 40 years = 0.001 GtC/yr

    compared to current fossil fuel and deforestation emissions of ~10 GtC/yr (4 orders of magnitude bigger).

  7. Main sources of human CO2 emissions are fossil fuel burning and (net) deforestation. This figure is from the Global Carbon Project in 2017.

  8. This is the biggie. What is the attribution for the temperature trends in recent decades? The question doesn’t specify a time-scale, so let’s assume either the last 60 years or so (which corresponds to the period specifically addressed by the IPCC, or the whole difference between now and the ‘pre-industrial’ (say the decades around 1850) (differences as a function of baseline are minimal). For the period since 1950, all credible studies are in accord with the IPCC AR5 statement:

    It is extremely likely that more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature from 1951 to 2010 was caused by the anthropogenic increase in greenhouse gas concentrations and other anthropogenic forcings together. The best estimate of the human-induced contribution to warming is similar to the observed warming over this period.

    For instance, this summary graphic is useful:

    Basically, all of the warming trend in the last ~60yrs is anthropogenic (a combination of greenhouse gases, aerosols, land use change, ozone etc.). To get a sense of the breakdown of that per contribution for the global mean temperature, and over a longer time-period, the Bloomberg data visualization, using data from GISS simulations is very useful.

    The difference in the bottom line for attribution for the last ~160 years is that while there is more uncertainty (since aerosol and solar forcings are increasingly shaky that far back), the big picture isn’t any different. The best estimate of the anthropogenic contribution is close to the entire warming. The potential for a solar contribution is slightly higher (perhaps up to 10% assuming maximum estimates for the forcing and impacts). In all cases, the forcing from anthropogenic greenhouse gases alone is greater than the observed warming.

    The role of internal climate variability gets smaller as the time-scale increases, but needs to be accounted for in these assessments. Note too that this can go both ways, internal variability might have wanted to cool overall in one period, and warm in another.


  1. C.W. Snyder, “Evolution of global temperature over the past two million years”, Nature, vol. 538, pp. 226-228, 2016.

  2. J.D. Hays, J. Imbrie, and N.J. Shackleton, “Variations in the Earth’s Orbit: Pacemaker of the Ice Ages”, Science, vol. 194, pp. 1121-1132, 1976.

  3. G. Roe, “In defense of Milankovitch”, Geophysical Research Letters, vol. 33, 2006.

  4. P. Köhler, R. Bintanja, H. Fischer, F. Joos, R. Knutti, G. Lohmann, and V. Masson-Delmotte, “What caused Earth’s temperature variations during the last 800,000 years? Data-based evidence on radiative forcing and constraints on climate sensitivity”, Quaternary Science Reviews, vol. 29, pp. 129-145, 2010.

  5. M. Etminan, G. Myhre, E.J. Highwood, and K.P. Shine, “Radiative forcing of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide: A significant revision of the methane radiative forcing”, Geophysical Research Letters, vol. 43, pp. 12,614-12,623, 2016.

Forest Digest: March 11, 2018

March 11th, 2018|Tags: , |0 Comments

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Eastern Bristlebird Credit: David Cook

Check out what’s happened this week in forestry news!

Birdsong loss would echo silence in the forests – The University of Queensland

The Eastern bristlebird only has three populations remaining in eastern Australia, and one of them is facing tremendous threats from habitat change and lack of appropriate fire regimens.

Why rare plants are rareScience Daily

Rare plant species are more susceptible to disease, which could explain why they are rare in the first place. A new study from the University of Bern could provide more answers and also indicate how climate change can make the problem worse.

Storms are destroying forests and, with them, carbonThe Bulletin

With extreme storms like Hurricanes Maria and Irma becoming more likely due to climate change, researchers are looking into how damage to forests will affect their ability to remove carbon from the atmosphere.

Insuring Nature to Ensure a Resilient Future – The Nature Conservancy

The Nature Conservancy, along with partners in Mexico’s state of Quintana Roo, have established the Coastal Zone Management Trust, a new model of funding that will allow for immediate action after severe weather damage occurs.

Indiana already feeling climate change effectsCourier & Press

Historic flooding and record-breaking rains are just two of the effects that will continue to accelerate as climate change worsens across the world.

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American Forests Responds: Sexual Harassment at the U.S. Forest Service

March 9th, 2018|0 Comments

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As a longtime partner of the U.S. Forest Service, we know the agency works hard caring for all of our nation’s forests, and has been a leader in promoting diversity in the workplace. While we applaud these efforts, it is very clear much more is needed to be done to ensure that everyone feels safe and respected in the workplace throughout the forest community.

We, at American Forests, are deeply disturbed by reports of sexual harassment that occurs at the U.S. Forest Service. Sexual harassment is unacceptable anywhere.

“We support the brave women who have come forward to tell their stories, and all whom have experienced this unacceptable behavior,” said Scott Steen, president and CEO of American Forests. “At minimum, everyone deserves a safe workplace free from harassment and retaliation. But beyond that, everyone deserves a workplace where they are treated with dignity and respect, and where their talents and efforts are welcomed and celebrated, without regard to gender.”

The U.S. Forest Service has long been a critical and valued partner of American Forests. That is why we strongly support efforts by both the Congressional oversight committees and U.S. Forest Service itself to investigate and address the deep-seated cultural issues that have been so damaging to many female employees. Every organization in the forest community, including public agencies like the U.S. Forest Service and nonprofits like American Forests, must be committed to providing safe, inclusive workplaces to advance equity in our country.

We stand ready to assist these efforts in any way possible.

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Planting Desert Landscapes at GreenBiz 2018

March 8th, 2018|Tags: , |0 Comments

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By Lindsey Putz, Director of Corporate Giving

Attending the GreenBiz 2018 conference was my first trip to Arizona. I grew up in Michigan and currently reside in D.C. While both places are beautiful, escaping the winter for a week in Phoenix was a welcomed opportunity. I left 30-degree weather combined with rain and humidity in D.C., and flew into 70-degree, sunny and dry weather. I wasn’t complaining!

Thanks to GreenBiz and Clif Bar’s support, American Forests had the opportunity to host a native desert restoration planting for conference attendees at the North Mountain Park Visitor Center at the Phoenix Mountain Preserve. Our awesome local partners, Phoenix Parks and Recreation and the Arizona Sustainability Alliance, put together a really fun day for everyone.

I was skeptical when I found out in advance that we would be planting cacti. How does one plant the prickly cacti? The answer is, carefully.

A group of 25 conference attendees from various industries and departments came together to plant almost 75 native trees, cacti and other vegetation. We all listened intently as we were taught how to wrap a rubber hose around a cactus, lift it up and hold it in place, while other volunteers set rocky soil around it.

A demonstration of how to properly plant a cactus.

Then we broke out into groups to get our hands dirty.

Volunteers digging a hole in preparation for planting.

Our group leader, Kathy, corrected our mistakes as we clumsily planted a small saguaro cactus. She also shared the many ecological benefits of the saguaro with us. Its flowers and seeds are a food source for small animals, birds can build nests in it, and it is efficient at storing carbon dioxide.

American Forests staff member Eliza Kretzmann finishes planting a saguaro cactus.

As one of the other volunteers in my group accurately described it, the saguaro is like the sea anemone of the desert. It protects birds nesting in it from larger predators with its spiky exterior.

Who knew? Well, probably most folks from the Southwest, but certainly not this Midwesterner.

As we continued planting, Kathy frequently reminded us to stay hydrated. As she put it, “If you’re thirsty, you’re already behind.”

The event was empowering, informative, fun and challenging. We wrapped up the day with delicious Clif Bars and a group photo, got back on the bus and talked about our planting experiences. From what I heard on our bus ride home, I wasn’t the only tree advocate in the group.

American Forests staff members Lindsey Putz, Jennifer Broome and Eliza Kretzmann (left to right).

There were a lot of smiles and new friendships formed, and all of us had learned new, interesting facts about the desert landscape. We took pride in what we were able to do for the environment. We felt more content to spend the rest of the day sitting in conference sessions.

I have been working with American Forests for nearly two years, and my passion for our work grows every day. Being a part of this planting opportunity took my passion for trees to a whole new height.

Plenty of smiles to go around after our amazing group of volunteers successfully planted 75 native trees, cacti and other vegetation in Phoenix.

I encourage anyone who has thought about planting trees, but hasn’t had the opportunity yet, to do so either at home or through work. American Forests has many employee engagement opportunities for you and your coworkers to get involved!

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