• Volume 18 Number 1
    Winter 2009


  • Cover Story: Feeding the poorest of the poor

  • No longer interim, Jay Akridge is the new dean of agriculture

  • College honors 10 distinguished alums

  • Alumni Profile: Afghanistan is last mission for Col. Chastain before retirement

  • Hospital patients check out adjunct professor's photography

  • Globe-trotting winner of the World Food Prize centers sights on the future

  • more...

    Notify me when the next issue comes online

    Stay in Touch

    About Us


    Home Page


    Bookmark and Share
    Seeing trees in the forest: Priceless

    Kevin Gurney spends countless hours investigating the factors that could drastically change global temperatures, rainfall and where crops are best grown. In the process, as one of approximately 2,500 researchers involved with a United Nations panel, Gurney became one of the winners of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.

    For the past 20 years, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has gathered and assessed scientific, technical and socio-economic data about man’s influence on global climate. In October, the panel and former U.S. Vice President Al Gore received the $1.5 million peace prize. Gurney, an atmospheric and ecological researcher, was one of the scientists who participated in the IPCC’s work.

    IPCC members asked Gurney to review part of the panel’s third report, which was published in 2001, because of his expertise in the carbon cycle — what happens to carbon dioxide produced from fossil fuel emissions. The organization’s fourth assessment document was made public on Nov. 1, 2007; Gurney provided material for one of the chapters.

    Formed in 1988 by the United Nations Environmental Programme and the World Meteorological Organization, the panel’s goals are to determine how much human activity is contributing to rising temperature, assess the impact of the climate changes on the earth and on all living organisms, and recommend ways to mitigate and adapt to the shifts.

    Gurney, who joined Purdue’s Departments of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences and Agronomy in 2005, investigates many aspects of the global carbon cycle. He hunts for the details of the sources, the movement and the fate of carbon dioxide emissions globally. He searches for an understanding of how vegetation removes large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere.

    In other words, he wants to know where carbon dioxide goes after it’s released from industries, fossil fuel-burning vehicles and farming.

    Gurney’s search also encompasses the role that deforestation — or decimation of forests — plays in the carbon cycle and how that can be influenced.

    “I’m trying to develop a way that deforestation might be handled within the Kyoto Protocol framework,” he says. The protocol is an environmental protection treaty adopted in 1997, which expires in 2012.

    Deforestation causes roughly 20 percent of carbon dioxide emissions into the Earth’s atmosphere each year. The atmosphere holds about 40 percent of the carbon from annual fossil fuel and deforestation emissions, oceans absorb about 30 percent, and the Earth’s land and all that lives on and in it, especially trees, apparently take up the other 30 percent. Scientists are still studying exactly where this 30 percent of “missing” carbon goes — to which trees, which forests, which other vegetation — and climate’s role in the carbon cycle.

    In the latest report, IPCC scientists wrote that global greenhouse gas emissions “due to human activities, have grown since pre-industrial times, with an increase of 70 percent between 1970 and 2004.” The panel members said that annual greenhouse gas emissions must peak by at least 2015, and emissions must be reduced 50 percent to 85 percent by 2050. If these goals aren’t met, the panel members warned that the worldwide average temperatures would continue to climb. High thermometer readings will mean island countries awash in rising seas due thermal expansion and melted glaciers and ice sheets; one-quarter of all earth’s species will become extinct; and crop yields in areas already deficient in food sources, such as Africa, could drop as much as 50 percent.

    Gurney, who began attending United Nations climate change treaty negotiations in the mid-1990s as an adviser, wants to better understand the missing carbon so he can predict how it might change, its interaction with future climate change, and its role in climate change policy. His research efforts in influencing worldwide deforestation policy led to his attendance at the two-week United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, Indonesia, in December.  Representatives from nearly 200 countries began the initial hammering out of an agreement to extend the Kyoto Protocol.

    Negotiators are using the IPCC 2007 Assessment Report as a basis to draft a global accord that both the United States and China, the two largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, will back. Both of those countries signed Kyoto but neither of their governments ratified it.

    “Bali was the eighth climate change negotiating session that I’ve attended,” Gurney says. “My attendance at the Bali sessions was focused on the deforestation issue. Leigh Raymond and I are proposing a very different way in which to build an international system for including deforestation policy in the climate change treaty. This has been a very difficult negotiating issue and one which was at the very top of the agenda at Bali.”

    Raymond is a Purdue political science associate professor.

    “The continuing treaty negotiations are an excellent opportunity to highlight our research into how understanding the missing carbon and deforestation can shape policy decisions about climate change,” Gurney says.

    In the meantime, the monetary award for the Nobel Peace Prize isn’t landing on Gurney’s desk: The IPCC’s share is paying for further climate assessment work; Gore announced that his half of the money was donated to the Alliance for Climate Protection, a non-profit educational organization he founded in 2006.

    Contact Doering at doering@purdue.edu

    Contact Gurney at kgurney@purdue.edu