Research shows how natural disturbances affect climate change response strategies

May 09, 2013
A carbon policy, with strategies to limit human-caused emissions or support clean energy systems, must balance the carbon flux from industrial and "natural" land-based emissions for the ecosystem. Current terrestrial emissions are negative globally, primarily due to trees storing more carbon than fires and other disturbances release. Researchers are looking at possible scenarios where terrestrial emissions may change as a result of natural disturbances.

( —Fires and hurricanes are only two examples of natural disturbances that drastically affect millions of people worldwide. Now, scientists are considering how these events might limit opportunities for climate mitigation as well. A team of scientists from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, working at the Joint Global Change Research Institute at Maryland, found that strategies to alleviate the impacts of climate change will need to account for future land and atmospheric disturbances that impact forests. This study is the first to quantify the effect of future natural disturbances on climate mitigation strategies.

You can't ignore Mother Nature. The carbon cycle is an unavoidable fact for climate planners and policy makers. Processes that substantially affect changes in the natural carbon cycle, such as , should be accounted for. This study shows that policy makers need to consider that changes in the frequency of extreme events, a likely impact of climate change, will affect how forests and other ecosystems grow.

"A good example of a 'natural disturbance' is vegetation or . They release a lot of carbon dioxide, soot and other pollutants into the atmosphere. Current strategies can only make assumptions for these big events," said lead author Dr. Yannick Le Page of PNNL. "If society wants to mitigate climate change but natural disturbances increase, we may have to decrease human-caused even more to balance the additional carbon flux in ecosystems."

Using the Global Change Assessment Model (GCAM), an integrated model of human and earth systems developed at PNNL with support from the U.S. Department of Energy, the team modified the model to account for disturbance impacts on ecosystems. Using GCAM, they projected the interaction between the Earth's system and human system under economic conditions required to limit climate change through mitigation through the year 2095. Natural ecosystems, human land use, energy and food production were among the systems assessed.

The team compared model results from three disturbance rate scenarios: no change, a decrease in natural disturbance rates, and a significant increase in natural disturbance rates. They found that disturbances can have substantial impacts on the Earth's carbon balance. Accounting for both human-caused and natural disturbances, greenhouse gas may have to work harder to limit the impacts from climate change. According to the research, if extreme events occur less frequently, or society improves land-management practices employing strategies such as land-carbon sequestration, a transition to low-carbon technology can happen at a lower economic cost for society.

The new research provides a foundation for ecosystem and disturbance models and their integration into socio-economic frameworks, such as GCAM. Because these feedbacks are dependent on climate, further research will be done considering specific scenarios of how climate change may alter natural disturbance rates.

Explore further: Fish will have to find new habitats or perish if global warming is left unchecked

More information: Le Page, Y. et al. 2013. Sensitivity of Climate Mitigation Strategies to Natural Disturbances. Environmental Research Letters 8(1): 015018. DOI:10.1088/1748-9326/8/1/015018

Related Stories

Reaching ambitious greenhouse gas concentration goals

Mar 18, 2013

Researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory found that even though it is technically possible to reach ambitious goals to limit greenhouse gas concentrations by the end of the 21st century, the combin ...

Limiting greenhouse gas emissions from land use in Europe

Apr 10, 2013

Not only do humans emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, but they also do things that help remove these gases from the atmosphere—for example, planting more forests or other land management techniques can lead to greater ...

Breaking down the impact of greenhouse gases

Oct 23, 2012

It's called the global warming potential or GWP for short and it bundles together the importance of carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases on future climate change.  Researchers from DOE's Pacific ...

Recommended for you

As nations dither, cities pick up climate slack

4 hours ago

Their national governments hamstrung by domestic politics, stretched budgets and diplomatic inertia, many cities and provinces have taken a leading role—driven by necessity—in efforts to arrest galloping ...

Should we all escape to the country during a heatwave?

8 hours ago

A University of Birmingham research project has highlighted the potential health impacts of heatwaves in urbanised areas. By modelling the 2003 heatwave the researchers were able to identify areas where city centres were ...

NASA maps beach tar from California oil pipeline spill

9 hours ago

When an on-land pipeline ruptured north of Santa Barbara, California, on May 19—spilling 105,000 barrels of crude oil onto Refugio State Beach and about 21,000 gallons of oil into the Pacific Ocean in the ...

Not all plastics equal

10 hours ago

Ever buy a fish at a pet store that died within days of being put in an aquarium at home?

Carbon capture and storage safety investigated

10 hours ago

A significant step has been made for potential Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) deployment, with the publication of the results from the world's first experiment into the realistic simulation of potential ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.