Town Talks: Future Of Planet Written In Forest Trees

images“The idea was… Someone, somewhere may be willing to offset carbon emissions by supporting rainforest preservation in a developing country.”

The quote is George Weiblen, Associate Professor of Plant Biology at University of Minnesota, talking about “Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation” (or REDD), a United Nations negotiation that, Weiblen will attest, changed the dynamics of tropical rainforests forever.

On Tuesday, July 9, the Telluride Science Research Center’s Town Talks will take you deep into the forests. Weiblen’s discussion, “Carbon Cowboys Wrangle for Riches,” will unravel the politics behind rainforest carbon. Rebecca Montgomery, Associate Professor in the Department of Forest Resources at University of Minnesota, will breakdown the forest’s response to climate change in “Turning Up the Heat: Trees in a Warmer World.”  Talks start at 6 p.m. at the Sheridan Opera House.

“Forests are defined by the trees that make them up,” Montgomery said. “Tropical rainforests are the largest and most biodiverse carbon sinks on the planet, thanks to their trees. They soak up billions of tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) and store it as solid carbon in their trunks. However, decades of deforestation for timber, fuel, agriculture, and urban development, has released exorbitant amounts of CO2 back into the atmosphere.”

In 2008, the United Nations established REDD, a program that offered financial incentives in exchange for rainforest preservation. Slapping a price tag on rainforest trees, not only offset greenhouse gas emissions, but also sparked island nations to develop their own carbon offset markets.

Potential valuation of forests for carbon storage brought a whirlwind of investors into Papa New Guinea.

“These carbon cowboys descended upon the tiny island willing to cut deals from resource owners and negotiate with speculators abroad,” said Weiblen. “They created a wild west frontier that we were suddenly caught up in.”

It wasn’t until REDD that scientists like Weiblen, started renting rainforest land with the backing of corporate donors for long-term studies.

“This initiative brings direct economic benefits to the indigenous people in the form of royalty payments, local employment, and educational opportunities,” Weiblen explained.

At Tuesday’s Town Talk, Weiblen will describe how carbon cap and trade negotiations have transformed developing nations into global partners. He will explain his lab’s progress calculating carbon storage and conserving biodiversity of over 25 million trees in Papa New Guinea.

From the tropical forests to the Boreal forests, Montgomery’s Town Talk looks at how forests are responding to a changing climate. Scientists are churning out numbers on global warming, but much of the general public remains uninformed.

According to Montgomery, our most powerful tool is phenology, or long-term recordings of seasonal life-cycle events.

“Phenology tells us when trees change color, when plants leaf and flower, when birds migrate to the northern hemisphere − these are our best data that help predict ecological and evolutionary responses to warming,” she explained.

Montgomery’s research paints a picture of the changing forests, particularly in Minnesota. There, her lab investigates tree and plant responses to changes in environmental factors, like climate, temperature, and water. Montgomery will discuss growth patterns of maples and oaks and cold-weather trees, like aspens and firs. She will explain how a warmer world can influence carbon storage and alter species dominance.

Tuesday’s TSRC Town Talk brings new meaning to carbon as a rainforest currency and a critical piece of global warming data. Both presenters are strong proponents of experimentation to predict future ecological and economic scenarios.

“There’s a need for research that tells us what we know, what we don’t know, what the future will look like,” Montgomery said.

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