Academic Spotlight
Faculty Research, Performance and Exhibitions

Lichter's Climate Change Research Caps Major 12-Year Study

Story posted December 22, 2008

When John Lichter's climate-change research was published in the prestigious journal Nature in 2001, it was in the red-hot center of debate about global warming. It offered hard evidence undermining the Bush administration's then-assertion that the Kyoto Protocol didn't account for the amount of carbon dioxide being taken up by forests in the U.S.

Lichter, Bowdoin Associate Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies, showed preliminary evidence to the contrary, showing very limited carbon storage in soils that were part of the Duke Forest Carbon Experiment—the oldest carbon-storage experiment in an intact forest.

Carbon-injecting towers in the Duke Forest form 30-meter-diameter circular experimental plots in which the atmospheric CO2 concentration is maintained at elevated levels.

Lichter's findings were picked up worldwide in a variety of nature-related media outlets. To date, it has been cited 184 times in the scientific literature and was named one of the most influential articles in environmental science by Essential Science Indicators.

Now Lichter is preparing to do the final leg of his research, with the support of a $185,000 renewal grant from the National Science Foundation. He is quantifying the carbon levels stored in Duke Forest soils over a 12-year period—under normal conditions, and under artificially elevated levels of CO2 that reflect expected amounts 40-50 years from now.

Lichter's Merrymeeting Research

Lichter in the field with student researchers.

Professor Lichter's ongoing research on Merrymeeting Bay and the Kennebec estuary focuses on the capacity of ecosystems to resist and bounce back from human disturbance. The research identifies key ecosystem components and processes that promote resilience in the hope that ecological recovery may be stimulated with restoration efforts. To date, more than 20 students have participated in Lichter's Merrymeeting Bay research through funded summer research, independent studies or honors projects. Read about the research.

His preliminary findings—co-authored by a Bowdoin student and published in Global Change Biology—are being highlighted in an upcoming issue of Nature, where they are likely to be considered a capstone finding from the experiment, formally known as the Duke Forest Free Air CO2 Enrichment (FACE) project.

"The hope was that forests would take up a lot of the CO2 that is coming out of our tailpipes and potentially mitigate global warming," notes Lichter. "What we are finding is that even though there is carbon in soils, it takes a long time to get there. In areas of the forest receiving extra carbon dioxide, the trees are growing faster but the soils are definitely not taking up much carbon. In a thousand years it might be a significant amount, but the addition to the soil is very slow."

The U.S. Department of Energy, which has provided a majority of the funding for the Duke Forest research in Durham, N.C., recently decided to shut down the long-term experiment, upsetting many of the 75-plus researchers involved.

"I think it's an important and worthy global-change experiment with much more data to collect," Lichter says. "We won't really understand what the implications are for sustainability if they shut the experiment down. But I think the DOE has decided it's time to move on."

Lichte and student researchers
Lichter, in yellow vest, conducts field research in Merrymeeting Bay with Bowdoin students.

Meanwhile, Lichter's ongoing research on the ecology and environmental history of Merrymeeting Bay and the Kennebec estuary continues to provide rich opportunities for Bowdoin student research and independent study. To date, more than 15 students have completed honors research with Lichter, some of it meriting publication in journals including Ecology, Northeastern Naturalist, and Frontiers in Ecology and Environment.

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