Mucking around for answers to climate change

Entering beautiful forests cast of brilliant greens in contrast to the dark-colored mud, which permeates the sultry air with the distinct pungent smell of rotten eggs, researchers wade in thick soils up to their thighs to get to the bottom of climate change.

Boone Kauffman, professor of ecosystems ecology in the department of fisheries and wildlife at Oregon State University, partners with the Center for International Forestry Research to examine the dynamics of land use and land cover change in tropical wetlands of the world.

This global collaboration focuses on the potential impacts of deforestation of the tropical wetland mangrove and freshwater peat swamp forests of Indonesia.

“When measuring and sampling the soils for carbon there, you have to be like a child playing on a playground,” Kaufman said. “It’s very difficult to move through the root systems — it can be so dense that it takes us an hour to walk 100 meters.”

Kaufman’s research group maintains additional data collection sites in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Researchers have recently discovered that huge carbon stocks exist within the mangrove trees.

“When disturbed, the mangroves become significant sources of greenhouse gases to the environment, similar to, but to a much greater extent than the removal of the tropical rain forests of the world,” Kauffman said.

Researchers are looking at what occurs when the mangroves are deforested and, most commonly in Indonesia, converted to shrimp ponds or when the fresh water peat forests are converted to oil palm plantations.

The goal of the research is to access how much of the greenhouse gases are going into the earth’s atmosphere.

“By way of deforestation, not only do we lose all of these ecosystem services diversity and the aesthetic values and timber values — all of this carbon goes into the atmosphere, which is something tragic that we need to be aware of,” Kauffman said.

Kauffman’s partnership with CIFOR began seven years ago while he was working in Hawaii. Previously, Kauffman spent 17 years as a professor at OSU.

Since returning to Oregon two years ago, the research partnership between Kaufman’s group and CIFOR has strengthened significantly by the inclusion and support of OSU.

“We now have four graduate students here from Indonesia that are working on this project with us,” Kauffman said. “We’ve established very strong educational and research ties between ourselves and the Indonesian government.”

One of these graduate students is Virni Budi Arifanti. She is a Ph.D. candidate working under the supervision of Kauffman and is a researcher at the Center for Climate Change Research and Forest Policy and a government officer within the Forest Research and Development Agency in the Ministry of Forestry of Indonesia.

“Mangroves are one of the least-studied forest types in the world,” Budi Arifanti said. “It’s an honor for me to do this research in a mangrove area where I’m from, as it’s the first time in Indonesia for researchers to begin to understand and study the carbon dynamics.”

According to Kauffman, one of the aspects of this research is that it strongly influences policy makers on how to manage these tropical forest areas and offers better understanding of the values of these forests on climate change mitigation.

“A lot of our work has gone directly to U.N. climate change negotiators,” Kauffman said. “Much of our presentations over the last several years have been at U.N. climate change meetings.”

It’s policy-relevant research on how to slow rates of climate change through better forest management, and in this case, through better tropical wetland forest management and adaptation, Kaufman said.

The research carried out at OSU has found that even though the mangroves are only less than 1 percent of the land area of tropical forests globally, its deforestation may contribute as much as 10 percent of the green house gases that come from tropical deforestation, according to Kauffman.

Harboring a vast array of ecosystem services from habitats for unique fish and wildlife species, but also protection for people from tsunamis and storms, the freshwater peat swamp forests and the mangroves are vital for Indonesia.

The tropical peat forest in Indonesia is also home to the world’s most abundant populations of orangutans.

“We have to think about all of our futures if we cut down all of our forests — what will happen?” Budi Arifanti asked. “We need to focus on conservation of all forests no matter what.”


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