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Tracking Carbon Dioxide in the Amazon

NSF Award:

PIRE: Carbon, Water and Vegetation Dynamics of Amazon Forests Under Climatic Variability and Change  (University of Arizona)

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The Amazon is known for its abundant biological diversity and the largest tropical forests on Earth. But scientists are concerned that these forests may suffer irreversible dieback from extreme drought and warming caused by future climate change. 

A study by an international team, involving researchers from the University of Arizona (UA), Harvard University and Brazilian academic and research institutions, has shown that contrary to prior conventional wisdom, short-term droughts do not always cause a slow-down in photosynthetic activity. Droughts can even increase this activity.

Measuring changes in the movement of carbon dioxide (CO2) in and out of the forest as the climate varies from one year to the next gives important clues as to how this vast forest might respond to longer-term climate change. 

As part of their study, the team, led by Scott Saleska (UA), is investigating how climate change may impact the Amazon forest's future. To measure CO2 movement, the researchers monitor trees in multiple ways: As individual trees in the forest, whole stands of trees observed from towers, and the entire Amazon from satellites in space.

The team also uses models that predict the interactions of forests with climate. By comparing measurements of what forests actually do with models that predict what we think they will do, Saleska and his team are creating a deeper understanding of these important forests. The team is also enhancing model prediction by incorporating field measurements into the models.

Further research is needed to understand how these different responses fit together, and to provide information on what to expect from long-term climate change. 

Images (1 of )

  • researchers measure leaf spectral properties with handheld device
  • graduate student installs sensors to monitor carbon, energy and water exchange between forest and atmosphere
  • students and researcher analyze data
Researchers measure leaf spectral properties.
Jake Bryant,
Canopy access allows placement of monitoring sensors.
Jake Bryant,
Researcher Steve Wofsy and students analyze data.
Jake Bryant,

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