Braving the Amazon to understand climate change

Figure courtesy of Lou Gold via Flickr

Figure courtesy of Lou Gold via Flickr

Scientists may not be known as the most courageous folk. They deserve such recognition, given their history of challenging established doctrine, venturing into the Arctic to spy glacial melting, and even sticking a needle in their eyes to better understand optics (thanks Mr. Newton!). Now, a team of researchers, construction workers, and engineers join this cadre of brave scientific brethren, navigating the malaria-carrying mosquitoes, blood-sucking leeches, and poisonous frogs deep within the Amazon rainforest to gain a clearer picture of how climate change and deforestation are affecting the largest forest on the planet.

This isn’t just a one-time expedition, either. Since 2009, a collaboration between Brazil and the Max Planck Institute in Germany has culminated in the construction of a 325-meter monolith – about a meter taller than the Eiffel Tower – that will provide measurements of carbon dioxide, methane, and other climatic variables high in the atmosphere.1,2 Painted a bright orange that breaks the monotony of the green sea of trees below its peak, the tower will provide a bevy of data about how the rainforest interacts with the atmosphere and how climate change and deforestation affects this relationship.

The Amazon plays a crucial role in guiding global climate patterns due to its size; it affects the trade winds, the carbon and water cycles, and weather patterns in southern South America.3 The pure size of the Amazon, covering 7 million square kilometers and nine countries, also makes it an important carbon sink to mitigate the effects of fossil fuel emissions. Beyond this type of climate control, the Amazon rainforest also accounts for 20 percent of all oxygen produced on the planet and houses the greatest biodiversity on the planet.

But climate change and deforestation could drastically change the nature of the Amazon and how it affects weather patterns. Rampant deforestation to support the soybean industry, illegal land grabs, and the construction of underlying infrastructure has already depleted 20 percent of the rainforest in four decades, with an additional 20 percent expected over the next 20 years.4 The rainforest produces most of its own rainfall from evapotranspiration, so scientists believe continued destruction may push it past an unknown tipping point which would prevent the forest from producing enough moisture to sustain itself. Combined with global warming, this could transform the Amazon from a lush, verdant rainforest to something resembling a crusty savannah susceptible to droughts. The hint of such a future already arose in 2005 when droughts reduced river levels by 12 meters.4 And each year, as more trees fall to lumbering, the world’s greatest carbon sink can do less and less to soak up our carbon dioxide emissions and may eventually become a net source of carbon, if it hasn’t already.


To learn more about how a tower in the Amazon will help understand climate change, read the rest of the post on Eyes on Environment!



  1. Bowater, D. “Amazon Tall Tower Observatory gives scientists the big picture of the rainforest.” The Independent, Accessed June 8, 2015.
  2. Andreae, M. O., et al. “The Amazon Tall Tower Observatory (ATTO) in the remote Amazon Basin: overview of first results from ecosystem ecology, meteorology, trace gas, and aerosol measurements.” Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics Discussions 15.8 (2015): 11599-11726.
  3. Tuthill, S-R. “Deforestation of Amazon could change global weather.” Accessed June 8, 2015.
  4. Wallace, S. “Farming the Amazon.” National Geographic, Accessed June 8, 2015.
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