Blogs by Riley Duren

Blogs by Riley Duren

Riley Duren is a principal engineer and chief systems engineer for the Earth Science Directorate at JPL. He supports a suite of Earth observing satellites and, since 2008, has applied the discipline of systems engineering to supporting societal decision-making about climate change and energy.

Dr. Sassan Saatchi speaking at the UN Climate Change conference

Riley Duren, chief systems engineer for the Earth Science and Technology Directorate at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is reporting from the 2014 United Nations Climate Conference in Lima, Peru.

I mentioned previously that Peru is home to some of the most important forests in the world in terms of their vulnerability to future impacts from climate change and development pressure as well as their potential to mitigate climate change. This underscores the importance of certain elements of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. In particular, the Reduction of Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD+) program seeks to address the second-largest human contribution to climate change after fossil fuel use (see Friday's post).

Detailed definitions vary, but deforestation generally refers to conversion of forested lands to some other use -- particularly large-scale agriculture but also mining and expansion of infrastructure and cities. Degradation is distinct and refers to a diminished capacity of forests to store carbon, support ecosystems and other services. Forest degradation is caused by human activity such as commercial logging, fuel wood collection, charcoal production, and livestock grazing as well as natural forces like storms, insect damage and wildfires.

Forests play a critical role in Earth's carbon budget because healthy, growing trees and other forest elements remove and store carbon from the atmosphere -- converting it to "biomass" in trees, shrubs and soil. This makes forests one of the most effective countermeasures for fossil fuel CO2 emissions (see graph, below).

A cloud forest on the flank of Hualalai volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii

The Earth's evolving carbon budget from the start of the Industrial Revolution through present day. Carbon dioxide (CO2) flux is shown in units of Giga (billion) tons of carbon per year (GtC/year). Fluxes of carbon emitted to the atmosphere are indicated by "+". Fluxes of carbon removed from the atmosphere are indicated by "-". The plot shows the dramatic growth in fossil fuel CO2 emissions since the mid-20th century and slight decline in emissions from deforestation and other land use change. The graph also shows the corresponding growth in the three major carbon sinks: the atmosphere, land (forests) and oceans. The variability or "jumpiness" in the land sink from year to year is likely due to changes in precipitation associated with climate variability like El Nino. The future ability of the land and oceans to remove CO2 from the atmosphere remains an area of great uncertainty. Image source: Global Carbon Project

However, when forests are degraded or destroyed, the storage potential of the forest is reduced or eliminated. Additionally, if the downed trees are burned and/or decay and forest soils are disturbed, they release their stored carbon (sometimes centuries worth) into the atmosphere. So there's an incentive to both keep forests growing to store carbon and to avoid disturbing the carbon already stored in them.

Programs like REDD+ are intended to incentivize governments and landowners to preserve and restore their forests. For example, in carbon-trading programs, governments and business can "offset" their fossil fuel CO2 emissions by purchasing credits from forest owners who can prove they're storing an equivalent amount of emissions by implementing certain protocols, including independent measurement and verification. These efforts are particularly important in the tropics, which are home to most of the world's forest carbon, as well as the countries experiencing the most rapid growth and development pressures, very similar to the period of growth the US underwent in the 1800s.

Over the weekend, I attended the Global Landscape Forum to interact with policy makers, conservation groups and scientists on the subject of forest carbon monitoring. One of the panel sessions featured JPL's Dr. Sassan Saatchi and other experts who described the current capabilities and limitations of remote-sensing tools to assess the status and health of forests, including their carbon stocks and "fluxes" (removals from and emissions to the atmosphere).

The remote-sensing methods discussed included imaging systems like the US Landsat satellites that are being used to track forest-cover change as well as future systems that will improve understanding of forest degradation such as NASA's ICESAT-2 mission, the NASA-India Synthetic Aperture Radar (NI-SAR) and the European Space Agency's BIOMASS mission. The role of flying radar and lidar (laser radar) instruments on aircraft over high priority areas was also discussed.

Of course decisions about forest management involve dimensions other than climate change mitigation -- typically involving a balance between economic growth and the value of existing ecosystem services offered by forests. Biodiversity in particular is gaining prominence in decision-making given the societal and economic value it represents. Biodiversity, which refers to the number of species in a given area, is often highest in forest ecosystems (particularly in the tropics) given they provide a combination of food, shelter and water resources. The information required to evaluate biodiversity is related to, but distinct from, the data used to assess forest carbon. (I'll try to describe the role of remote-sensing in assessing biodiversity in a future post.)

Meanwhile, closing with some personal experience, I'm posting a couple of photos I took while working on my own forest conservation and biodiversity project in Hawaii.

A cloud forest on the flank of Hualalai volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii

A cloud forest on the flank of Hualalai volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii. The giant, ancient trees and native understory plants thrive in the high-altitude, moist environment provided by the persistent presence of clouds -- providing carbon storage as well as a habitat for threatened plant and bird species. The benefits of the unique Kona weather pattern are offset by the introduction of invasive weeds and destructive feral animals like pigs and sheep.Image credit: Riley Duren

A cloud forest on the flank of Hualalai volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii

A threatened I'iwi honeycreeper, endemic to the Hawaiian Islands, sips nectar from an Ohia tree blossom. Historically, this species ranged across the Hawaiian Islands but today only survive in a few high-elevation forests given the combined pressure of deforestation and avian malaria at lower elevations from non-native mosquitoes. The I'iwi, like many other Hawaiian bird and plant species, lacks the natural defenses to withstand the combined pressure from development and climate change. Management efforts focus on conserving, restoring and building resiliency in threatened forest habitats. Image credit: Riley Duren


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Screengrab from a time-lapse video of Los Angeles

Illustration of the ground-based instruments and aircraft tracking CO2 in Los Angeles

Riley Duren, chief systems engineer for the Earth Science and Technology Directorate at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is reporting from the 2014 United Nations Climate Conference in Lima, Peru.

We arrived in Lima, Peru, late last night and made our way to the United Nations climate conference venue this morning -- an impressive complex known locally as the Pentagonito or “Little Pentagon.” As host country and city, Peru and Lima are representative of several key fronts in the international effort to confront climate change. Peru is home to some of the most significant tropical forests on Earth that are the focus of programs to preserve their vital role in storing carbon and critically endangered ecosystems (more about that tomorrow). With a population approaching 10 million people, Lima itself is a rapidly growing megacity -- one of many in the developing world.

The latter topic is the focus of this post and the event I’m participating in later today at the US Center: “Understanding the Carbon Emissions of Cities.” I’ll be joining colleagues from the US National Institute of Standards and Technology, Arizona State University, Laboratoire Des Sciences du Climat et de l'Environnement (France), and Universidade de São Paulo (Brazil) in presenting the motivation for and recent scientific advances in monitoring urban carbon pollution. There won’t be a live stream but the event will be recorded - keep an eye on the US State Department’s YouTube page where it should be posted this weekend.

So what is “carbon pollution” and why should we care about it? Most of us are familiar with the general topic of air pollution; just ask anybody who has asthma or knows a friend or family member with respiratory problems. Cities are notorious sources of air pollutants or smog -- including visible particles (aerosols) and invisible but caustic ozone. One can find many examples of success stories where air quality has improved in response to clean-air standards as well as horror stories in cities lacking such standards. However, this familiar topic of air quality is mostly limited to short-lived pollutants -- compounds that only persist in the atmosphere for hours or days. Those pollutants are important because of human health impacts but they’re not primary drivers of climate change. Carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (another carbon-based molecule) on the other hand, are long-lived gases that trap heat in the atmosphere for many years. Once CO2 and methane are in the atmosphere, they remain there for a long time -- centuries, in the case of CO2. Most people are unaware of the presence of CO2 and methane because they’re invisible and odorless and don’t have an immediate impact on health, but those gases are THE big drivers of climate change.

There are many sources of CO2 on Earth, including natural emissions that, prior to the industrial revolution, were balanced by removals from natural carbon scrubbers like forests and oceans. However human activity is rapidly changing the balance of CO2 in the atmosphere, leading to an unprecedented growth rate. Most of these human CO2 emissions come from burning fossil fuels like coal and oil. These fossil emissions are responsible for about 85 percent of humanity’s CO2 footprint today and, globally, they’re continuing to accelerate. So any successful effort to avoid dangerous climate change must have fossil CO2 mitigation at its core. Managing methane is also important given its greater heat trapping potential than CO2.

Why focus on carbon from cities? It turns out that urbanization – the increasing migration of people from rural areas to urban centers – has concentrated over half the world’s population, over 70 percent of fossil CO2 emissions and a significant amount of methane emissions into less than 3 percent of the Earth’s land area! So cities and their power plants represent the largest cause of human carbon emissions. In 2010, the 50 largest cities alone were collectively the third largest fossil CO2 emitter after China and the US – and there are thousands of cities. At the same time, in many cases, emissions from cities are undergoing rapid growth because of urbanization.

But there’s also a silver lining here.

Many cities are beginning to serve as “first responders” to climate change. While national governments continue to negotiate over country-level commitments, mayors of some of the largest cities are already taking action to reduce their cities’ carbon footprints, and they’re working together through voluntary agreements. Additionally, the concentrated nature of urban carbon emissions makes measuring those emissions easier than measuring entire countries.

Measuring the carbon emissions of cities is important (you can’t manage what you can’t measure) and challenging given the number of sources and key sectors and uncertainty about how much each contributes to the total carbon footprint. For example, in a typical city, CO2 is emitted from the transportation sector (cars, trucks, airports, seaports), energy sector (power plants), commercial and industrial sectors (businesses, factories) and residential sector (heating and cooking in homes). Likewise, urban methane sources include landfills, wastewater treatment plants, and leaks in natural gas pipelines. Mayors, regional councils, businesses and citizens have a number of options to reduce their carbon emissions. Measuring the effect of those efforts and understanding where and why they’re not having the intended impact can prove critical to successful mitigation. It also has economic implications -- toward identifying the most cost-effective actions and supporting emissions trading (carbon markets) between cities and other sub-national entities.

How can we measure the carbon emissions of cities? That’s the focus of the Megacities Carbon Project and the topic of our event in Lima today. Briefly, this involves combining data from satellites and surface-monitoring stations that track concentrations of CO2, methane and other gases in the atmosphere over and around cities with other, local data sets that contain information about key sectors. Pilot efforts in Los Angeles, Paris, Sao Paulo and other cities are beginning to demonstrate the utility of these methodologies. Satellites like NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 and other future missions, when combined with a global network of urban carbon monitoring stations, could ultimately play an important role in enabling more effective mitigation action by the world’s largest carbon emitters: cities.


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Illustration of Earth observing satellites

Riley Duren, chief systems engineer for the Earth Science and Technology Directorate at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is reporting from the 2014 United Nations Climate Conference in Lima, Peru.

Today I'm en route to Lima, Peru, to join the United Nations climate conference. This is the 20th Conference of Parties (COP-20) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The meeting is intended to set the stage for an international agreement next year between 195 countries on actions to address climate change. For the next two weeks, diplomats, policy makers, scientists, engineers, economists, and representatives of business and non-profit organizations are convening in Lima to discuss a wide range of options to avoid dangerous climate change and/or attempt to manage the impacts to humanity and the other species that share planet Earth. (More background, here)

As it turned out, I managed to miss my flight yesterday as result of the heavy rains and jammed freeways that ensued from the latest "atmospheric river" event in Los Angeles. But I have to admit, I was far more relieved than annoyed by this break (albeit brief) in California's persistent drought - a sentiment shared by all my neighbors and fellow travelers. Yet another reminder of the critical connections between weather, climate, and society, and what's at stake in efforts aimed at planetary stewardship.

Several JPLers are participating in the meeting given the lab's contribution of applying satellite observations to improve scientific understanding of the Earth and support societal decision-making. Collectively, the efforts of us traveling this week span sea, land and air - each reflecting part of NASA's broader mission to study the Earth as an integrated system.

My colleague Dr. Michelle Gierach is part of the NASA delegation at the US Center and will be talking about the ocean and impacts of climate change on key features like the El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO). Dr. Sassan Saatchi, who studies forest carbon, will be a panelist at this weekend's Global Landscapes Forum.

My own work these days is mostly focused on heat trapping or "greenhouse" gases in the atmosphere, like carbon dioxide and methane, and understanding the connections with human activity at the scale of countries, states, cities and individual pollution sources. I spend much of my time working with policy makers and scientists to understand stakeholder needs and design monitoring systems that can support practical decision making. It's a big challenge: These monitoring "system of systems" typically require a suite of Earth observing instruments from the ground, air and space - often fused with data from many other information sources. In addition to the technical challenges, after several years in this field, I continue to marvel at the diversity of perspectives, priorities, institutional cultures and ways of thinking, with implications on what data is required. The social dimensions are every bit as important as the bio-geophysical.

I'll say more in subsequent posts about some specific efforts that are underway and how they connect with events at the Lima conference.


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