An ecologist’s perspective on climate change

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President,
Illinois Renewable Energy Association

We were first introduced to the internationally prominent ecologist George Woodwell by the late Doug Wade who was Woodwell’s instructor at Dartmouth. A few years later we visited a former professor of ours who was identifying plants for a Woodwell-inspired experiment. Cesium 137 was injected into trees to determine its pathways in the ecological web of the forest. Recently, we were surprised to learn Woodwell is still active and has published a book, A World to Live In.

Woodwell is alarmed by the accelerated rate of global environmental deterioration and the lack of an appropriate level of response on the part of government and industry to the concerns expressed by the scientific community.  While many environmental problems need to be addressed, Woodwell considers climate change and environmental chemistry in need of urgent action.

His interest in environmental chemistry was stimulated by the radioactive fallout from testing nuclear weapons. In response he set up his woodland experiments exposing plants to a chronic level of cesium 137 to assess the impacts these particles would have on a healthy, stable woodland ecosystem. He concluded that chronic exposure caused a predictable sequence of destruction which he called a gradient of impoverishment, progressing from trees to tall shrubs, lower shrubs, herbaceous plants, mosses and lichens.

From additional studies he concluded that acute chronic disturbances in the global environment will produce systemic increments of impoverishment no matter what the cause. It suggests that the statement, “the solution to pollution is dilution,” is a myth. Nothing escapes impoverishment – not forests, nature preserves, parks, farms or gardens. They are all vulnerable as the environment departs from the long term stability under which normal, natural communities developed. For Woodwell, research clearly establishes that chronic chemical releases have changed the global biosphere.

The most extreme global chemical change is the level of CO2 in the atmosphere. By burning fossil fuels we have transferred substantial amounts of carbon buried underground for centuries into the air. For 800,000 years until 1880, CO2 levels in the atmosphere did not exceed 280 ppm. Today they are slightly above 400 ppm. For over 40 years scientific reports have documented changes occurring on the planet resulting from rising levels of CO2 and related greenhouse gases. Until now, the global response to the problem has been limited although some actions have been taken.

For Woodwell the international goal of accepting a 2oC temperature rise is not safe nor is the goal of lowering carbon emissions to 350 ppm. He advocates a return to atmospheric carbon emissions of 280 to 300 ppm characteristic of the early 1900s.

He indicates that the trees and soils of global forests, given their large size, are the most effective means available to quickly increase carbon storage. In some cases cutover portions of the forests could be left to expand through the natural process of succession. In other cases, large scale ecological restoration projects using native tree species could accelerate reforestation.

While critics will express concern over the economic costs of such a global project, it could prove far more cost effective than repairing the ever rising costs of damages from storms, floods, droughts and crop losses associated with increasing climate disruptions.

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