Although still little explored in a sustainable way, the Amazon rainforest is undoubtedly one of the most valuable assets in Latin America. Superlatives abound: it occupies an area of 5.5 million km2, stores around 150 billion tons of carbon, holds 10-15% of the planet’s biodiversity, accounts for 20% of freshwater entering the oceans annually, has a population of 25 million inhabitants, more than 200 indigenous ethnicities, and a broad socio-cultural richness. The latent potential for development of new drugs, cosmetics and biotechnology products based on the genetic resources of the forest is immense.

And where has all the forest gone?

The vast majority would respond: “deforestation is increasing in the Amazon.” In fact, deforestation in the Amazon, especially the Brazilian Amazon, has dropped significantly by 80% since 2004. With this threat placed relatively under control, another very serious threat to the forest is highlighted, and still little known by the public in general and even by scientists: the effect that the ongoing climate change on the planet can have on the functioning of the forest, on the biodiversity it shelters and on the valuable environmental services it provides to humankind (including regional climate regulation, provision of hydroelectric power, storage of carbon, etc.).

Climate change could threaten the Amazon

Alarmingly, projections from computational models of climate and vegetation show that an increase in temperature and reduction of annual rainfall in the region could lead to a catastrophic loss of biomass and biodiversity in the Amazon forest, making the forest more similar to the Brazilian Cerrado. On the other hand, these same projections show that the increase in the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2, which is the main cause behind anticipated climate change for the coming decades) could in theory counterbalance the adverse effects of temperature rise and rainfall reduction thus increasing forest productivity. This positive effect that the increase of CO2 could have on the forest is called the “CO2 fertilization effect”. However, little is known whether this effect will actually occur in the world’s largest rainforest and how long it will last. It is the future of the Amazon in the true balance!

Science and Technology for sustainable development

AmazonFACE, a research program supported by the IDB, seeks to identify this CO2 fertilization effect and how it could increase the resilience (ability to re-establish after disturbance) of the forest to climate change. The central pillar of the program is a field experiment located in the heart of the forest at a research station of the National Research Institute of the Amazon (INPA), 70km north of Manaus, AM, Brazil. In this experiment a specialized infrastructure of towers, sensors and tanks will expose parts of the forest to an atmospheric CO2 level that will be 50% higher (600 ppm) than the level currently found in the atmosphere (approx. 400 ppm). Within these experimental areas a team of researchers from Brazil, USA, Europe and Australia has been monitoring ecological processes from the highest leaves of the treetops to the roots below the ground in order to characterize the forest ecosystem before rising the CO2 level.

Education and knowledge can be the real stakes!

In collaboration with the IDB the AmazonFACE program conducted the second edition of the annual field course entitled “Amazon and Climate Change”, which offers international undergraduate and graduate students from all over the world (especially Brazil and Latin America, but also the US and Europe) the opportunity to explore how to monitor and model the Amazon forest’s functioning in the face of climate change (apply here). It is an excellent opportunity not only for the cutting-edge scientific qualification of these students in the subject, but above all also to win the hearts and minds of future scientists for this endeavour, which is one of the most dramatic environmental dilemmas to be faced by Latin America in the coming decades.

Check out the original post: “Amazônia e a mudança climática: o futuro no fiel da balança