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Measuring the Climate-Services of Forests to Fight Global Warming


October was the sixth month in a row of the warmest temperatures ever recorded.  That's according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  And El Nino is not fully to blame. Greenhouse gas emissions are a big part of the problem.  Researchers at Virginia Tech and Sweet Briar College are working on ways to remove more of it from the air.

Here's how Thomas O'Halloran explains the difference between weather and climate: "The weather tells you what you need to wear today and climate tells you what should be in your closet."

O'Halloran is a Research Assistant Professor in the Department of environmental resources and conservation at Virginia Tech.   A self-described weather geek, his team is measuring not only short term fluctuations, but also creating long term models with the data. He designed and built a brand new observation tower, perched 60 feet above the tree tops near the Blue Ridge Mountains that is gathering information 24/7 in the middle of a loblolly pine forest planted 25 years ago.

“A pine plantation is a managed eco-system. It's the kind of thing, in the context of climate, if we want to take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and put it into forests, it might be advisable to expand the forested area and plant more trees.  So part of our research is asking the question, what kinds of vegetation, trees or forests are most beneficial to climate?"  The question needs answering before policy decisions can be made on the worldwide effort to combat global warming.

"So the scientific community has set this goal of 2 degrees Celsius of warming; we've said if we can limit climate warming to 2 degrees or less, we think the effects won't be catastrophic. And so that is our goal."

Scientists say transitioning from burning fossil fuels to more renewable energy is one part.

“But another thing that needs to be part of our portfolio is in managing the land surface.  Right now the terrestrial biosphere, the global land surface, the vegetation, the plants the forest, do us the favor of taking about a quarter of the carbon we put in the atmosphere back out.  And the ocean does another quarter.”

Credit http://sbc-lars.blog.sbc.edu/
The tower

So how many dollars do those quarters add up to?  As political leaders discuss the possibility of carbon credits markets, it will be important to know the numbers.

"If we're going to put a dollar value on carbon then we need to know how to put it in the forest, how to keep it in forests, how sensitive they are to drought. How prone are they to fire. Because if you spend money and say we're going to put 'x' amount of carbon into a forest and that forest burns up that carbon is now back in the atmosphere so we have to be very careful about crediting these things and insuring against  those kinds of scenarios."

O'Halloran is working closely with Quinn Thomas also at Virginia Tech. Thomas was instrumental in 'saving' the state of the art Land-Atmosphere Research Station when it looked like Sweet Briar College in central Virginia might close its doors last year.

Scientists around the world were concerned about its fate until Virginia Tech stepped in with additional new technology and invited O'Halloran to join its faculty.  Now that Sweet Briar has remained up and running the tower is collaboration between the two institutions.

And one of the things researchers are finding, is that climate itself, is something of collaboration between forests and the atmosphere as they exchange energy and carbon dioxide. Studies from the new tower are showing that when temperatures rise, the pine forest produces more particles that become air borne, slightly lowering the air temperature.

"And what's even cooler than that, is that those particles that the forests make, because they interact with clouds and radiation, they're potentially modifying its own environment. If it can affect radiation in a cloud, then that actually affects the photosynthesis of the forest.  So now you have a mechanism, not just where the atmosphere affects the forest, but the forest affects the atmosphere.  We say that's a 'coupled system.' Essentially the forest and the atmosphere are talking to each other and we're just starting to get an idea of how that system works.”

A webcam at the research tower updates every half hour with data and pictures from the site. The data are available in real time so that weather geeks and climate watchers can check in any time. 

Robbie Harris is based in Blacksburg, covering the New River Valley and southwestern Virginia.
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