Dr. George Woodwell, Climate Science Pioneer, Woods Hole Research Center

Editor's Note:

Dr. George Woodwell, ecologist, is one of the first American scientists to blow the whistle on what almost all (97%) scientists now fully accept as world-wide climate change. Beginning in the late 1960s, he was studying the effects of CO2 on forests. As he integrated this knowledge with the latest data on CO2 atmospheric concentrations from the pioneering monitoring work of Dr. Charles David Keeling in Hawaii, he developed a well-reasoned theory of how increasing carbon in the Earth’s atmosphere from fossil fuel combustion was effecting the entire biota of life on Earth as it warmed our planet. In 1979, at the request of the Carter Administration, he and several other climate scientists for the first time presented a full-blown theory of climate change to the US Congress. Shortly thereafter, the ill-advised policies of eight years of the Reagan Administration buried the scientifically well-received congressional testimony of Dr. Woodwell and colleagues, setting concern for climate change back by those eight years. In 1988, the same four scientists, plus NASA scientist, Dr. James Hansen, presented some new, strongly supportive data on rising temperatures before some of the same congressional committees. History records this 1988 testimony as the coming-out for climate change.

While Dr. James Hansen rightfully receives credit for the development of the strongly supportive temperature data, but for the Reagan Administration, the first strong deniers of climate change, the scientifically well- received 1979 testimony written by Dr. Woodwell and reviewed and approved by his three colleagues, Charles David Keeling, George MacDonald, and Roger Revelle, would have been climate change’s coming out.

In the interest of giving credit where credit is due, and in no way lessening the importance of rising temperature data developed by Dr. James Hansen in the ‘80s, the 1979 testimony by the four scientists was the first full explanation of the now accepted theory of climate change.  For that reason, I state unequivocally, that Dr. George Woodwell be called The Dean of American Climate Science.

Dr. George Woodwell: 

As a young botanist, an ecologist, fresh out of graduate work at Duke University, I took a job with the University of Maine, stayed there for 3 years, and decided it was time to learn something about ionizing radiation, a topic that was bringing many important new insights into ecology.  An opportunity appeared at Brookhaven National Laboratory where I was asked to talk about their new interest in the ecological effects of ionizing radiation, a topic long overlooked.

To make a long story short, I went there to set up a research program on that topic.  The focus was on a forest stand on the laboratory site. The laboratory had a very large site, about 2500 acres at that time. It was mostly forested with a young successional oak –pine forest. We selected a relatively uniform stand, a substantial area, which we could fence in and expose systematically over a long time to ionizing radiation from a large, centrally located, source of gamma radiation.

One of the criteria of effects was potential changes in the metabolism of the forest, its photosynthesis and respiration. Both involve continuous exchanges of carbon dioxide with the atmosphere, fluxes that could be measured. Such measurements required new equipment which we designed and had constructed in Brookhaven’s remarkably versatile shops. We started this work in 1960-61, attempting to monitor photosynthesis and respiration of plants in the forest using small chambers flushed with air of known quantity and composition. Such measurements required that we know with precision the carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere at all times.  It turned out that the atmosphere was highly variable, so we had to become experts in the monitoring the composition of the atmosphere locally and generally.

That was the time when David Keeling was first reporting his own CO2 data from Mauna Loa and from the South Pole. Dave had been hired by Roger Revelle, then Director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California. Roger recognized that one of the great issues not then being explored was the change in the composition of the atmosphere as a result of burning increasing quantities of fossil fuels. Charles Dave Keeling came with a new PhD in chemistry and abundant talent.  David figured out how to measure the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere with great precision.

About that time new devices were being developed to use the infrared absorptive capacity of carbon dioxide and other gases to measure their concentrations directly in air, a much simpler and more accurate technique than the chemical analyses required previously.  The new equipment made accurate measurements down to the part per million level. We used the instruments with great effectiveness in the forest. Our standard gases were calibrated with those used by Keeling so we could compare data directly. At Brookhaven we had a meteorological tower which was 450 feet tall and we could monitor air at any level. 

Because the atmospheric composition varied considerably, it became very important to have well-defined standards in measuring metabolism. We became experts on the carbon dioxide concentration on Long Island and in fact published papers on the rise in CO2 concentration over time. We used the changes in CO2 close to the ground during temperature inversions to measure the metabolism of the forest. During nocturnal temperature inversions, there’s no photosynthesis, only respiration, and the air is quite still and the carbon dioxide emitted by the metabolism of the forest, including the decay of organic matter in the soils, accumulates close to the ground. Its rate of accumulation is a measure of the total from respiration of plants and soil. 

We published the very first observations showing the total respiration of a forest stand, and wrote on the carbon dioxide problem for the Scientific American in the 1960s. Our interest in the build- up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was based on considerable experience.  We talked regularly with Dave Keeling, who was building what turned out to be the most spectacularly important and unique bio- physical record of a fundamental change in the chemistry of the entire earth.

David had difficulties in keeping that program going because he was financed largely by the National Science Foundation.  Reviewers were critical:  “We support new ideas, not simple monitoring programs.”  We and other colleagues wrote many times in support of Dave Keeling’s continuedprogram, describing the importance of theflow of data from Mauna Loa in the Hawaiian Islands, from the South Pole, and ultimately from many other stations.  Patterns had emerged immediately. 

The most conspicuous trend was the annual cycle which follows the seasons. The CO2 concentration drops during the summer in each hemisphere as carbon is stored, largely by plants on land.  During the fall and winter in middle and higher latitudes photosynthesis drops away, but respiration continues, burning carbon reserves previously stored. The carbon dioxide concentration in air rises again. We became experts on these biotic flows of carbon as we learned more and more details.

These are large flows of carbon, dwarfing those from fossil fuels, which are none the less important because they are continuous and all in one direction.  Small changes in those large flows can be important as we found as we explored ways of reducing the atmospheric burden.

Those insights on the disruption of the global carbon cycle and its potential for changing the temperature of the earth came alongafter the no less startling realization that ionizing radiation used in the bomb tests was a global contaminant.  New, persistent and distressingly toxic substances were being introduced into global food webs. Again, the Earth was being changed in fundamental ways. The global interest in the chemistry of the Earth became a vigorous new realm of ecology with political concerns not at all well digested.  

At the University of Maine I had become intensively engaged in appraising the collateral effects and persistence of DDT used in aerial spraying of forests of Maine and New Brunswick. The spraying was to control an indigenous pest, the spruce budworm.  It was effective but the residues of DDT were persistent and accumulated in soils and, potentially in food webs.   I carried that research program with me as I moved to Long Island where a parallel aerial spraying program used DDT to control the salt marsh mosquito.   Not long after moving I was joined by Charles Wurster, a chemist who came from Dartmouth to the staff of the new State University of New York at Stony Brook.   Wurster, too, was interested in the DDT problem with special emphasis on effects on birds. Together with other colleagues we showed that residues from the aerial spraying over years had accumulated in food webs and were having profound effects, especially on carnivorous birds including the ospreys of eastern Long Island.   Efforts to control the spraying were initially rebuffed.  We were, however, ultimately effective as a result of using our compelling data in court actions that led to the founding of the Environmental Defense Fund, a new conservation-law group, in 1967.  By then we knew much about DDT and could confirm in detail the brilliantly articulated concerns formulated by Rachel Carson in Silent Spring in 1962.  

Environmental interests intensified in those years.  An international meeting was planned to be held in Stockholm in 1972 to examine just how to respond to these new global environmental challenges:  both the potential climatic disruption and the corruption of global chemistry by then clearly accumulating chemical toxins distributed substantially without control.  In preparation for that meeting there was a series of discussions over the summer of 1971 arranged by the dean of the Wharton School at MIT, Dr. Carroll Wilson. The meetings were held in Williamstown, MA. It was an interesting group representing a wide range of environmental interests.  It included Will Kellogg and several other distinguished climatologists from the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. Many others extended the interests to the full range of “environmental” topics as seen at that time. 

I expected to discover a large group of like-minded scholars actively looking for ways to join in correcting seriously threatening trends.  What I encountered was far from that optimistic dream.  My climatologist colleagues from the new center in Boulder financed by the National Science Foundation and ultimately by the Congress were forthright in pointing out that so far, while there was ample evidence that the composition of the atmosphere was being changed, there were no data showing a change in the temperature of the earth and sounding an alarm would be premature.  One guessed that hyper-objectivity preserved the integrity of the Congressional interest in the fine new research enterprise.

I stumbled over such a reality however reasonable it was from their standpoint.  The global economic system was heavily dependent on fossil fuels and no one wished to be seen as casually undermining or even questioning that obviously successful arrangement.  It was, however, from my standpoint, frustrating to say the least. We knew that adding heat trapping capacity to the atmosphere would warm the earth and the warming, while appearing to some to be a blessing, would be an ecological disaster challengingthe foundations of civilization if allowed to run free.  Knowing all these aspects of the problem seemed to me to carry some responsibility more than simply smiling, sitting back and watching the predictions proven correct over time.  But it was clear that any statement from the conference on climate was to be equivocal.  I was not going to change that fact.

Meanwhile, as these attitudes were being exposed, similar views of toxic substances, especially DDT, were emerging. I found myself objecting to a flood of statements denying the problems of DDT that had been exposed so effectively by Rachel Carson nearly a decade earlier and documented powerfully by our own research. The “data” being used to defend such views were newspaper articles condemning science and scientists. The arguments were advanced by people whose credentials appeared to be nothing more than a wish to be heard in support of business interests in exploiting a convenient pesticide.  I objected vigorously but ineffectually.  We had, after all, clearly defined both the threat of the climatic disruption and the toxic substances issue as seen through the experience with DDT. By that time there were two vigorous new conservation law institutions, EDF and the NRDC, each forcing the realities of science into governmental policy. But there seemed little point in my continuing useless discussion and I decided to use the time to take our children canoeing in New England. I left the conference.

We moved from Brookhaven to the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole and pursued the carbon issue and continued to be involved in it and the carbon climate issue. And of course scientists became involved in it and scientists had meetings around the world, a series of meetings in Austria, and I joined in some of the earliest meetings.

The Carter administration came into play in the late 70’s and Jimmy Carter understood the problem thoroughly, and he put solar panels on the roof of the White House in the late ‘70s. And he appointed his Council on Environmental Quality (first established in 1969), which was ultimately led by environmentalist Gus Speth. Gus understood the problem thoroughly, in fact in 1979 he started a study which was called Global 2000, i.e., what the world would be like in 2000. As a part of that, he asked me to prepare a statement about what the climate disruption would mean, and he wanted me to get several others to sign on. I was reluctant to do it because I had written a lot about the carbon problem and no one was paying any attention—I just simply didn’t want to waste more time writing about it. Gus said if I wrote something and got these guys to agree with it that he would get circulated.

So I did write several pages saying that this is a very serious global problem, I got Roger Revelle, Dave Keeling and Gordon MacDonald to sign it, and we handed it in to Gus. . I had no trouble at all getting those three colleges to sign-- they understood the problem as well as I did. And Gus took it and arranged for hearings in the Congress over the next several years.

Part of it of course was ignored or misplaced in 1981, when Reagan became president. He famously took the panels off the White House roof and the attitude of the administration changed entirely. I can’t help but think that if Carter had been reelected, as he should have been, the whole course of interest in the climate issue would have consolidated under him and would have been magnificently advanced-- instead we got nothing but opposition from the Republican administration, and that delayed us for what amounts to 25 years or more. It was a bad show then and looking back on it was a terrible show, a terrible transition. 

I spent 10 years at the Marine Biological Laboratory, and then, in 1985, I left to set up the Woods Hole Research Center. At that time, there was a great deal of interest in the climate issue in the scientific community. Around that time, I became persuaded that the scientific community should insist on there being a climate treaty.                                                                                                                                        

Fortunately, here in Woods Hole, I ran into a young Indian named Ramakrishna Kilaparti Ramakrishna, who had had a Fulbright fellowship at Harvard and then a year at the Oceanographic Institution. And before going back to India, his wife was working on a master’s degree in Boston, and he wanted to spend another extra year around Boston or at least in New England-- so I suggested he come and work for us and draft a treaty.

He had a background in international affairs, as well as in international environmental law. He had done a PhD dissertation on the UN system. So, he knew that system inside-out and he was familiar with the people, which was amazing to me. So, he agreed to come and work for us. I had no money, so he came without any salary initially. Over the course of several months, he produced, not a draft of the treaty, but a draft saying how to compose the treaty.

I asked that it be reviewed, and he set up a review panel which included, Sir Crispin Tickell, who was the British Ambassador to the United Nations and several other UN officials. They indeed reviewed the document sitting in my living room here in Woods Hole, and they all approved. One of the gentleman had written a little book about the carbon dioxide problem, and so he knew it inside and out.  They went back to the UN, and they managed to persuade the General Assembly to set up a committee to draft the treaty, which was to be chaired by Michael Zammit Cutajar of Malta. Rama would have been asked to be the secretary of that committee, except at that time the US was not paying its dues to the UN, there was no money, because Senator Jesse Helms from North Carolina had refused to support the UN.

So, Cutajar wisely said to Rama “Well look, you know the issue, I know that you have experience, can you come and work for me, and we will get the treaty done.”  So, Ramakrishna did it, and we paid him, and a treaty emerged. While Rama had a big hand in it, certainly a lot of the initiative came from us, but I’m sure the treaty would have emerged otherwise. It just happened that we were on the scene at that moment. Anyway, that was the Framework Convention on Climate Change which was signed in Rio in 1992 and then subsequently over the course of the next year was ratified by all the (roughly) 196 nations in the UN at that time, including the United States.

This Framework Convention on Climate Change treaty said in sum that it is the intention of the nations of the world to stabilize the composition of the atmosphere at levels that will protect human interest and nature. But, unfortunately, it provided no mechanism for achieving its goal,  the stabilization of the Earth’s climate-- the creation of a mechanism was put off, being left to the Conferences of the Parties.

This mechanism, and enforcement powers were not established till COP5 in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997. The so-called Kyoto Protocol treaty produced the clearest, really serious effort of implementing the treaty, and that was under the heavy influence of the US that substantially defined what the terms would be. And these were good terms, except that they could never be ratified by the US. The US Senate never offered the genuine international leadership that was required to get other nations to join, and instead voted 95-0 to reject the treaty, led by the fossil fuel Industry, specifically West Virginia Senator, Robert Byrd.  And so, while the agreement was a sound one, wisely put together, it could not pass the political test.  

Looking at the 25 years of COPs, there have now been 21 with our current COP21 in Paris, almost one every year. Some were outstanding, but none produced what was needed from the first.  This year in Paris, the nations decided they had to do something constructive, but, again, because the U.S. Senate, in this case led by the Republicans, refused to support a binding climate treaty, producing instead an agreement, which, unlike a treaty, only requires presidential approval, but has no teeth.

Now what they did was interesting and in many ways encouraging. It’s encouraging in the sense that all the nations recognized something had to be done, that the new world that can emerge in the post-fossil fuel age is not a black world, but potentially a very attractive world with cleaner air and much cleaner living for everybody. And having that recognition in the commercial world is a big forward step and very important.

On the other hand, the consensus of the group did not embrace the stabilization objective of the basic document, The Framework Convention on Climate Change. They embraced instead, business as usual, proceed as we are going, adapt as we can, and try to keep the rising temperature of the Earth to an average of 2 degrees C or less. Well, that from a scientific standpoint is outrageous. No scientist who knows this topic in any detail is going to agree that an average change in the temperature of the Earth of 2 degrees is safe, acceptable in any way, for a reasonable objective.

It doesn’t matter what one looks at like the melting of glacial ice, because it’s preceding already far less than 2 degrees average change in the temperature of the Earth, and it’s clearly causing higher tides, higher water year by year. But it has the potential for raising sea levels as much as 10 feet in a century or maybe even more. But, even if there’s a three foot rise in water levels, it can fill the subways of New York during a storm. That would cause some serious attention to simply the issue of sea level rise, I think. But it would also fill the tunnels of Baltimore and Boston and various other places.

So, I really think that this is fantasy. And then looking at what happens to climate worldwide, it’s very clear that agriculture is put at enormous risk, and that our industrial agriculture is not the way we are going to be able to go in the future in any case. So, looking at the climatic changes that are the likely result of the Paris agreement, the major disruption will continue. What we have to do, if I look at this as a scientist, is to start a trend in the reverse direction, a cooling, with the objective of reaching the heat trapping gas content of the atmosphere that existed in 1900.

Before we continue looking at where we need to go in the future, I need to talk a bit more about Rio and the Framework Convention on Climate Change. Its purpose was to stabilize temperatures at levels to protect essentially everything, but we have long passed that level of course, which is a tragedy in itself. Now, the apparent decision of the political and economic interests is to proceed in the same direction without drastic and immediate change and without an objective that is currently appropriate.

The objective that they have defined is a warming of 2 degrees C s being the upper limit, but there’s no way to guarantee that if we allow this contemporary warming to continue, it can be stopped at 2 degrees. This is simply because the feedback mechanisms that go along with the warming are so powerful that they can quite easily slip beyond control.

Currently, control exists largely in reducing the use of fossil fuels, but could also exist if we would only amplify the normal flows of carbon through the biosphere as they existed for millions of years. Those flows are very large, roughly 90 to 100 billion tons of carbon per year flows into terrestrial plants and out again in respiration and an equivalent amount diffuses into the oceans and out again—these are truly  huge flows.

We could increase the area of forests on Earth by a significant amount. Roughly a million square kilometers of forest absorbs about a billion tons of carbon annually. The problem with carbon at the moment is about 4 to 5 billion tons are accumulating in the atmosphere annually. To stabilize the atmosphere you have to remove 4 to 5 billion tons per year from emissions. Total fossil fuel emissions are roughly 10 billion tons per year. But the net accumulation is only 4 to 5 billion tons, the remainder diffuses into the oceans or is absorbed by forests. Those are the two major sinks for carbon. 

And so, if we wanted to reach zero, that is stabilize the composition of the atmosphere as intended at Rio, which is the first step toward reversing the trend, we’d have to reduce that 4 to 5 billion tons to zero. We can do that; deforestation is producing about 1.5 billion tons per year of carbon yearly. Ceasing deforestation on a global basis is possible, but it won’t be easy.

We should start in the United States by deciding that all the forested areas that are under governmental control, and substantial land areas would be retained as forests, i.e., not harvested. Knowing that, we can restore forests on normally naturally forested land around the world to the extent of millions of square kilometers. A million square kilometers absorbs about a billion tons of carbon a year, so if we can restore forests on an area twice the size of Alaska (1.7 million km square), which is entirely possible on a global basis, we can store several billion tons of carbon annually in developing forests.

Well, those are clearly advantageous things to do, they don’t solve the whole problem but they are a large part of the solution. And then, we could reduce the total use of fossil fuels by 20 percent almost overnight. It would take some significant efforts but it can be done, and it can be done commercially and attractively in the sense that renewable energy is cheap, and we can and are developing it. Solar, for instance has lately averaged about an eight to ten percent price drop every year. Our home that I am sitting in at the moment, produces more energy than we use. And in the Woods Hole Research Center, we have a wind machine and solar panels. Initially when we set that up, we were an immense source of energy, now the center has expanded-- with cooling and big computers, we are producing slightly less than we use, but none the less we produce it ourselves, and that’s getting to be more common.

The city of Brattleboro, Vermont, is claiming to be entirely on renewable energy. This is to me remarkable, and will soon become more common. Renewable energy is cheap. I personally find that my investments in solar energy are yielding about a 10 percent return; isn’t that something? It may not be universally true, but none the less it is a very good investment here and now.

Let’s look at the threat of methane. Methane is leaking from fracking wells in relatively large amounts, as scientist Dr. Bob Howarth and others tell us. Further, it is one of the big hazards in the sense that there are potentially big sources of methane in the tundra in the Arctic and large sources in the shallow waters around the Arctic. And as those waters warm, that methane bank which is quite great, potentially enters the atmosphere where it stays in large part for about 20 years, breaking down into carbon dioxide as well which has a much longer half-life. Now the half-life of methane is on the order of ten or thirteen years, but that the half-life, it’s not all gone for about 50 years, which is a similar process as for radioactive (Uranium, C14, etc.) elements.

The Arctic is warming so rapidly that the soils melt and dump methane that’s been trapped over thousands of years into the atmosphere. Making the problem worse, these are all part of the feedback system which is underway and it’s serious and large enough that it could grab the whole issue away from any possibility of control. The really large hazard is the warming itself, as a rapidly warming Arctic releases increasing, but untold, quantities of methane from rapidly thawing soils and the ocean bottom in especially shallow coastal waters. 

Now you can’t prove that, all one can do is to realize that the possibility exists, and it’s a sufficient hazard that we don’t want to take that risk. If you can’t afford to lose a gamble, don’t gamble. But it seems that’s a gamble that the political and economic interests are making for us with our future, and they should not be allowed to do that. No question, we really should be raising sufficient concern that there’s no possibility that the warming of the Earth will continue. Even 1.5 degrees, let alone 2 degrees is taking a big chance. We are now at 1 degree C of warming, and look what’s already happening—BAD. But even WORSE, the warming is rapidly accelerating.

Everybody wonders of course where the tipping point might be or whether we’ve passed it. There are those that talk about melting of the glaciers in the Antarctic, glaciers sliding off the land, and saying it’s now irreversible. As the melting proceeds and a glacier slides, it becomes a float, and as a float, it melts.

So, I think that the hazards are real and with us now, and I think the scientific community would agree. Now I don’t know how big the scientific community is who would agree with the ideas I just expressed. There are pieces of the scientific community that don’t agree with that, and the scientific community is fundamentally conservative. They want proof before they act, they say. Well proof in this case is going to be a series of changes in the Earth that are irreversible, once made, we will wish we hadn’t gotten to that point. I think that when one sees that the car is headed for a cliff, the best thing to do is apply the brake and turn away from that course.

We should use the information we have to make a better world and that’s the whole issue. We’ve turned it over to the politicians and the economists who say “yes we’re going to work in the right direction”, but they don’t have a set of objectives that are yet appropriate. The appropriate objectives have to be cooling the Earth here on through the rest of this century. Getting back to a world that is something close to the 1900 level of CO2 in the atmosphere would ensure refreezing of the Arctic, if it happens early enough. Happening “early enough” is hard to define, but I don’t see any alternative. The atmosphere was 280 parts per million CO2 for a million years or more. It wasn’t above that for a very long time. One benchmark is the 1880s when it was 284 ppm.  If we could get it down to or near that 1880 number, we’d be in good shape.

That would mean the end of fossil fuels. But we’ve reached the point where fossil fuels must end. And the reason why it hasn’t ended is simple close mindedness and greed on the part of fossil fuel companies. Exxon knew what the problem was, I had money from Exxon when I set up the research program at the Marine Biological Laboratory, and I talked with those guys. They knew they were financing us, and they knew what we were saying and doing. They knew all about it, that was 1975. In ’75, I had support from Exxon to build the Ecosystem Center at the Marine Biological Lab, and they supported me through the next 10 years at about $25,000 a year, and they knew the whole problem. And when I left the MBL in ’85, I would have taken their grant with me, but they wouldn’t move it.

This is the point of a book we’ll publish in a month or so-- the turn away from fossil fuels has to be a turn toward recognition that the world is run, not by economic and political systems or by humans, but by the natural communities of the Earth, largely by forests because they’re so big, but also by the other natural communities which include grasslands, prairies, tundra, and the whole range of the normal structure of nature. The seriousness and the degree of integrity of the structure of the natural communities isn’t really recognized until we start to mix them up. We moved species around the world and discovered that we had messed up everything. The invasives destroy the structure of the forests, like kudzu growing all over everything in the South.

We now have in New England a plague of the bittersweet vine, totally uncontrolled and running over forests, killing trees, it’s just incredible. Apparently a hybrid between an Asian strain and an American strain, I’m not sure what its history is, but nonetheless, the integrity of the invaded communities is totally destroyed.  And that gives you an idea of just how important it is to have respect for the structure of the basic units of the biosphere, which built the biosphere and that continue to run it. And continuing to run it means it maintains the gas structure of the atmosphere, the chemistry of the oceans, the chemistry of lakes, rivers, and that chemistry determines what the structure of those communities is. They evolved in that set of circumstances, and they continue to depend on it. So the transition away from fossil fuels, if it’s going to be successful, has to achieve as well the need to preserve the basic biology of nature, because that’s what keeps a habitable Earth for us humans, and I suggest we have a vested interest in that.