The Amazon in South America is more than a forest or an habitat. It's a climate regulator which has to absorb between 200 and 300 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions produced by the 8,000 square miles of forests destroyed every year. In 1998, the Brazilian community, helped by many international institutions, launched the Large Scale Biosphere-Atmosphere Experiment (LBA). The LBA Experiment is made up of 120 projects, 61 of which are already complete. The status of these projects is currently being reviewed by 800 delegates from 170 Brazilian and foreign institutions at the III LBA Scientific Conference held in Brasilia between July 27 and 29. NASA says it plays a key role in the LBA experiment through the use of its satellites and its computer scientists. But Inter Press Service reports that the Mega-Amazon Research Project Holds Surprises -- Good and Bad: good because it provides opportunities for 400 researchers to work on postgraduate studies in the area, bad because it's still not known if the forests absorb enough carbon to compensate the emissions caused by deforestation, therefore contributing to global warming.
Here is NASA says about its participation to LBA.
NASA plays a key role in LBA research. Satellites provide data for studying land use changes and their impacts on climate. Scientists hope to learn more about the Amazon forest's role in sequestering carbon from the atmosphere. Atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) traps heat and adds to global warming. Plant life absorbs CO2 from the air during photosynthesis and stores it in stems, leaves and roots. In order to understand regional and global carbon balances, researchers must quantify how much carbon is taken up by the rainforest as well as how much is released back to the atmosphere when forests are cleared or burned.
In the Amazon, deforestation, selective logging, fires and forest re-growth all play major roles in the carbon balance. In the Brazilian Amazon region alone, annual clear-cutting and burning of forests cover about 20,000 square kilometers (7,700 square miles or about the area of New Jersey). NASA data products from various instruments on the Landsat series of satellites have documented the history of deforestation in the Amazon since the 1970s. LBA researchers have found ways to measure both logging area and logging damage using Landsat and experimental new sensors on NASA's EO-1 satellite.
Below is a map of the LBA sites spanning "the Amazon from the headwaters in the Andes, along the river and its tributaries in the Amazon Basin, to the Riverís mouth in coastal Brazil. (Map courtesy LBA science team, adapted by Robert Simmon).
For those of you who are curious, this glossary gives a definition of what is a transect.
[This is a] straight line placed on the ground along which ecological measurements are taken. If an ecologist wanted to sample the diversity of intertidal organisms in the intertidal, he/she would place a number of transects perpendicular to the shore and take samples at predetermined interval lengths.
Now, let's turn to the Inter Press Service (IPS) report.
"There will be many surprises, both good and bad" emerging from the studies carried out as part of the Large Scale Biosphere Atmosphere Experiment in Amazonia (LBA), predicted one of the project's coordinators, researcher Flavio Luizao.
The programme, launched in 1998, has already shown that the Amazon jungle is not as homogeneous as it might appear, and that it provides great environmental services as a carbon sink and a generator of clouds and heat, influencing the climate over vast areas of the planet.
Amazon rainforests absorb carbon dioxide -- the main gas contributing to the greenhouse effect and the subsequent global warming -- but it is still not known if the forests take in enough to compensate the emissions caused by deforestation and - slash and burn" agriculture, Luizao told IPS.
Now come the good news.
In 2006, the programme will complete "a first phase of intense data collection," but the funding is already in place for two more years, which will be dedicated to analysis of the information and the integration of many parallel studies. The LBA Experiment is made up of 120 projects, 61 of which are already complete.
The combination of such a great body of accumulated information should pave the way for many discoveries and surprises to come, and "the gold can then be mined", said the researcher.
The LBA has given rise to knowledge on the complexity of the Amazonia region, while also providing opportunities for 400 researchers to work on postgraduate studies in the area. "This is the best gain for the region," in Luizao's view.
In Brazil's Amazon jungle region there are an estimated 1,000 professionals with doctorate degrees, but 10,000 more are needed to reach the "modest, and still not ideal" average of the rest of this country of nearly 180 million people, he stated.
For more information about this large environmental experiment, you should read "Introduction to LBA," a collection of pages from NASA's Earth Observatory, where I found the map above.
Sources: Large Scale Biosphere-Atmosphere website; Mario Osava, Inter Press Service (IPS), July 24, 2004; NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, July 27, 2004; NASA's Earth Observatory website