Reel Talk - Peter Lawerence of the National Center for Atmospheric Research

Reel Talk - Peter Lawerence of the National Center for Atmospheric Research


Tell us about your background and area of research.

I work for the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. My area is land use and land coverage change which includes deforestation, & agricultural expansion. But I’m also trying to understand the carbon cycle - such as how much carbon is tied up in forests. I’ve got a PhD in Geography and before I did my PhD, I worked with Australian National Parks and Wildlife as part of the Regional Forest Agreement - where we went through and did comprehensive regional assessments of all Australia’s forests.

My PhD is in climate science and deforestation. One of the things I’m really interested in is looking at how much of the world’s carbon is tied up in forests, how do those forests both draw carbon back out of the atmosphere and cycle it, and then how do those forests respond to a changing climate.


What do you work on at the Atmospheric Research Center?

We’re involved in multiple international programs looking at climate change, including the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). We do a lot of computer modeling of the earth system and try to understand how carbon and climate are so tightly linked to human actions/choices.

Why are forests so important to fight climate change?

Forests are a major sink of carbon, especially as we put more carbon in the atmosphere. The trees become very active when they’ve got more CO2 in the atmosphere so they can draw it back down. Essentially it is as though we’ve been getting a free sink for the last 150 years - as we burn fossil fuels or other actions - the forests have been there to absorb those emissions.

One of the things as climate changes and we’re seeing more droughts and more fires, some of these forests go from being a sink of carbon to a source. That’s not necessarily just because of climate change but also the way we manage them or don’t manage them.

What is one of the most alarming statistics around deforestation?

One statistic that alarms me is that around ⅓ of all emissions in the atmosphere of carbon dioxide have come through deforestation and land use.

How does deforestation end up contributing to 1/3 of all carbon in the atmosphere?

A lot of it is the fact that we take wood out of the forest, but there’s a soil component as well. The forest when they’re intact, they have a lot of carbon that is stored in the trees but also in the soil and you change that when you turn into a degraded posture or farmland. The carbon that’s currently locked up in the soil suddenly gets released back out as well.

Are there any reforestation programs that you’re excited about?

One of the key things to communicate is this is not the answer, it's a tactic to suppress climate change. One group that I like a lot is ReforestAction. It’s a global group that has planted 17 million trees. They’ve got a thousand forest projects going right now globally and, the whole idea was trying to set up a grassroots sort of community-based reforestation projects. 

There have been a lot of studies - I’ve actually been involved in them too - using a system model to see what the capability is to do large scale reforestation, afforestation and restoration of forests, in terms of drawing carbon back out into the atmosphere. A lot of those studies say we have a large amount of land we have cleared that are not currently actively used in farmland or being used for urban areas. So, there’s a potential for large amounts of that carbon to be drawn back down and stored in forests if they’re maintained properly.

I read a stat the other day - that when you clear cut a natural forest because of all of their disruption to the soil and the carbon that gets released, it would take up to around 200 years for that plot of land to return back to that state of carbon sequestration. Is that true?

You’re exactly right, there are time frames that are really important. When you plant a tree, that tree is not going to be an old growth tree for maybe 200 years - and thats the point where you’ll have all of the carbon reestablished. When you plant the trees, they grow reasonably rapidly and bring carbon back down, but it’s not something that’s going to suddenly change the climate in the next ten years just because you go and plant a whole bunch of trees.

It also depends what sort of forest you put in. Does it have biodiversity? Does it have a habitat for wildlife? Does it have all the ecosystem needs in terms of water reduction or water recycling for rainfall? If you put a monoculture of one species of trees, that’s not going to be great for biodiversity and wildlife - all these sorts of things that make up a healthy ecosystem.

What is one thing you would like our audience to know about deforestation?

We’re at this pivotal point in time where we’ve released a large amount of carbon to the atmosphere, our climate is rapidly changing, and it’s like we’re setting fire to our own house by continuing deforestation and not valuing what we have. Realizing that the products that we need to live can be sourced in other ways rather than just continuing to deforest a natural forest I think is really important.

We have to get ourselves into a new situation where we can look after the planet in a much, much more sustainable way. No one wants to live with smoky summers and forest fires. A big part of what I do is try and work out potential future worlds and present them with the different values and the different qualities. And what you’re doing, the decisions you’re making here with Reel I think is really great - because it is, it’s an active decision that says we want to find a different way of providing a really necessary resource which is toilet paper or other products but doesn’t come at the cost of natural forests, doesn’t come at the cost of losing something with great value.

What is one book, podcast, or article you would recommend our audience take a look at if they’re looking to learn more?

The Ministry For The Future - Kim Stanley Robinson


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