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Univ. of Arizona receives $2.5 million to study Amazon forests and climate change

A University of Arizona-led international team of scientists has received a five-year, $2.5 million grant to answer the question, What is the future of Amazon forests under climate change" and to train the next generation of culturally experienced scientists. The project combines international collaboration with interdisciplinary training in earth system science, remote sensing and modeling.

The National Science Foundation-funded project is called the Partnership for International Research and Education-- Amazonia, or Amazon-PIRE. The grant includes $1.5 million for stipends and fellowships to support participating students and early-career scientists. PIRE students will take a field course in Brazil's Amazon forest about tropical ecology and biogeochemistry, conduct related experiments within the tropical forest biome at UA's Biosphere 2 and work with Brazilian scientists and students through exchanges at Brazilian scientific institutions.

"Our project has a globally important scientific goal -- which is to figure out how climate changes affect Amazon forests. And there's an educational goal -- to help transform science education so the next generation of scientists will be successful in an increasingly globalized scientific community," said principal investigator Scott Saleska, an assistant professor in UA's department of ecology and evolutionary biology.

"The purpose of NSF's Amazon-PIRE program is to change how education works in this country by supporting new models for international collaboration and training. The educational goal is especially critical in environmental science, where cultural barriers can reinforce the disparity in knowledge between the most studied ecosystems, generally those in North America and Europe, and the ecosystems about which new knowledge and data are most needed, such as those in the tropics," Saleska said.

"Because the forests of the Amazon basin form the largest contiguous, intact tropical forest on Earth, Amazonia is a storehouse of carbon whose fate will influence the fate of climate change globally," said Saleska, also a member of Biosphere 2's science steering committee member and of UA's Institute for the Study of Planet Earth.

Saleska's co-principal investigators on the grant are Alfredo Huete, UA professor of soil, water and environmental science, W. James Shuttleworth, UA professor of hydrology and water resources and atmospheric sciences, and Steven C. Wofsy, professor of atmospheric and environmental science at Harvard University.

Other UA researchers participating in the project include Biosphere 2 Director Travis Huxman, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology; Brian Enquist, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology; Timothy Finan, director of the Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology; Joellen Russell, assistant professor of geosciences; and Scott Whiteford, director of UAs Center for Latin American Studies.

UA's partners on the project in Brazil are the University of So Paulo, the Federal University of Par, the National Institute for Amazonian Research (INPA), the Brazilian Agricultural Research Agency (EMBRAPA), and Museu Paraense Emilio Goeldi, which runs one of the oldest field research stations in the Amazon. Harvard University is also a partner on the project.

One prominent global climate change model suggests that increased drought will cause the Amazon forests to collapse.

"Other models predict resilience, Saleska said.

Which model is right" This new project will allow us to start answering that question. The answer is critically important: A collapse obviously would be devastating to the Amazon - an area with such mystical appeal and tremendous biodiversity. But it could also be bad news for climate change globally because all the carbon in those trees would go into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, thereby significantly accelerating climate change.

Recent research by Saleska and several colleagues indicates that resilience may be true in the short term. During the 2005 drought, the Amazon's forest canopy became greener, suggesting increased photosynthetic activity. The lack of clouds would have provided more sunlight energy to the forest and the trees may have drawn water from deep in the soil, Saleska said.

The new project will delve further into this finding. The researchers will focus primarily on the trees response to drought using tower samplings of gases and aerosols, new data from satellites and modeling simulations.

An additional National Science Foundation grant for $308,000 will let the scientists conduct aircraft surveys using laser-based sensors to help determine whether the Amazon forests are releasing or taking up carbon dioxide.

The Amazon-PIRE study is based on the premise that we can study the feedbacks by looking in some detail at interannual variation over a roughly ten-year period, said Saleska, who began collecting data in the Amazon after first visiting Brazil's Tapajos National Forest in 1999.

In addition to conducting field work in Amazonia, the project also will include experiments within Biosphere 2's gigantic controlled-environment facility near Oracle, Ariz. If drought doesnt cooperate in the Amazon, the team can always force a dry spell under glass.

There we can make the weather be what we want it to be, Saleska said.

We can induce a big drought, observe what it does, and learn how the vegetation responds to the dry conditions.


Contact: Mari N. Jensen
University of Arizona  

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Univ. of Arizona receives $2.5 million to study Amazon forests and climate change
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