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Amazon rainforest survey could improve carbon offset schemes

Carbon offsetting initiatives could be improved with new insights into the make-up of tropical forests.

Researchers from the Universities of Leeds and Edinburgh studying the Amazon Basin have revealed unprecedented detail of the size, age and species of trees across the region by comparing satellite maps with hundreds of field plots.

The findings will enable researchers to assess more accurately the amount of carbon each tree can store. This is a key factor in carbon offset schemes, in which trees are given a cash value according to their carbon content, and credits can be traded in exchange for preserving trees.

Existing satellite maps of the area have estimated trees’ carbon content based largely on their height, but have not accounted for large regional variations in their shape and density.

Researchers say their findings could help quantify the amount of carbon available to trade in areas of forest. This could help administer carbon offsetting more accurately, and improve understanding of how much carbon is stored in the world’s forests, which informs climate change forecasts.

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Photo: Fernando Espírito-Santo (NASA-JPL)
Photo: Fernando Espírito-Santo (NASA-JPL)

Amazon inhales more carbon than it emits

A new study led by NASA and Professor Manuel Gloor of the School of Geography, University of Leeds has confirmed that natural forests in the Amazon remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than they emit. This finding resolves a long-standing debate about a key component of the overall carbon balance of the Amazon basin.

“The study is the first to characterize forest disturbances across all spatial scales from a few square metres to hundreds of hectares across the entire Amazon,” according to co-author Professor Emanuel Gloor of the University of Leeds, who jointly led the study.

The Amazon's carbon balance is a matter of life and death: living trees take carbon dioxide out of the air as they grow, and dead trees put the greenhouse gas back into the air as they decompose. The new study, published today in Nature Communications, is the first to measure tree deaths caused by natural processes throughout the Amazon forest, even in remote areas where no data have been collected at ground level.

Fernando Espírito-Santo of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California, and Emanuel Gloor created new techniques to analyse satellite, LIDAR data and a 20-year set of measurements collected by hundreds of scientists in the RAINFOR network, led by Professor Oliver Phillips at Leeds.

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Photo: Toby Pennington (RBGE)
Photo:Toby Pennington (RBGE)

Live fast and diversify!

Short generation times have been crucial for creating the high species richness of hyperdiverse groups of Amazonian trees, according to new research published in the journal Ecology Letters which was covered by the BBC.

Amazonian forests are well known for their high levels of biodiversity, but until now there has been no explanation for why some groups of trees contain hundreds of species, while other groups contain only a few. By combining long-term data on the life histories and characteristics of different species, and the age and species richness of different groups, this study shows that the most diverse groups share one thing in common: short generation times.

“In the past, debates about the origin of the diversity of Amazonian forests have focussed on the role of historical events, such as the uplift of the Andes or climatic change, for generating the high diversity of Amazonian forests. In contrast, this study shows that the characteristics of the species themselves are also important” explained Dr Tim Baker. “Short generation times might increase the number of species we see today either through promoting speciation by allowing more rapid adaptation to changing environmental conditions, or from reducing extinction by allowing species to migrate more rapidly when the climate alters.’

Tim Baker worked with collaborators at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, University of Leeds, and Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México as well as many scientists involved in the RAINFOR forest inventory network, to collate the diverse types of data used in this study.

The results are also important for understanding why some forests contain more species than others. “Within Amazonia, forests in the western portion of the basin are particularly rich in species, partly because they contain many species from hyperdiverse groups such as Inga and Guatteria that contain around 300 and 265 species respectively” explained Prof. Toby Pennington, a co-author of the study. “These groups are common here because the comparatively rich, young soils of these forests favour fast-growing, short-lived species. Over longer timescales, these characteristics also seem to have generated more species – these forests are cradles of diversification.”

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University of Leeds to be a leader in data analytics and research

Two multi-million pound grants will make the University of Leeds a major centre for ‘Big Data’ analysis – and a national resource that can be used by academics.

The grants, announced today by Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts at the High Performance Computing and Big Data conference in London, were awarded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Medical Research Council (MRC).

Sir Alan Langlands, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leeds, said: “These awards provide a real opportunity for Leeds to establish a leading centre in data analytics which will have clear patient benefits, high social and economic impact and real international reach. The investments from the MRC and ESRC provide an excellent platform for the future.”

 The funding is part of the Government’s support for research that can drive economic growth. Big Data analysis has been identified by ministers as one of “eight great technologies” in which the UK is internationally competitive.

David Willetts said: “Making the most of large and complex data is a huge priority for Government as it has the potential to drive research and development, increase productivity and innovation and ultimately transform lives.” 

The University of Leeds has been awarded £5.8 million from the MRC and, although the final details are still being negotiated, a further grant of approximately £5 million from the ESRC.

The ESRC grant will be used to establish a new Master’s course in Geography and Business, which will help address national skill shortages in Big Data analysis, and will fund a Consumer Data Research Centre (CDRC) that is jointly hosted by the University of Leeds and University College London.

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Dry times in the Amazon add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere

As the climate changes, the Amazon Basin may release more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than it absorbs, according to a new study published in the journal Nature.

An international team of scientists, co-led by Professor Emanuel Gloor from the University of Leeds, found that during a dry year the Amazon Basin’s ecosystems ‘exhaled’ more carbon dioxide (through vegetation fires) than it ‘inhaled’ (through photosynthesis). During a wet year, the region was carbon neutral, with roughly equal amounts of carbon dioxide exhaled to the atmosphere and inhaled into ecosystems. “We know that the Amazon undergoes a warming trend similar to the rest of the globe. There is also an increase in both droughts and severe floods. It is unclear how the Amazon forests will change in the future,” said Professor Gloor, one of three lead authors on the new paper. “For the first time we have observed the Basin-wide carbon balance during a very dry and a wet year, which gives us an indication of what changes to expect.”

Until now, scientists have found it difficult to measure the carbon balance of Amazonia at the appropriate scale. Global observations of carbon dioxide concentration are unable to focus on tropical continental regions, and field studies in the Amazon rainforest struggle to scale up to the entire forest biome.

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Improving Flood Risk Management in China’s coastal megacities

China’s coastal cities have developed rapidly following the adoption of an “open door policy” and have attracted large investment and millions of workers, and are now economic powerhouses in East Asia. However, partly as a consequence of their growth, flood risk in these cities, already high, is rising. Sea level rise and regional changes in climate are exacerbating the risk, with typhoons, sea surges and storms expected to occur more often.  PhD student Faith Chan, supervised by Dr Gordon Mitchell and Professor Adrian McDonald, has been investigating flood risk management for these megacities, each home to over 8 million people, and has concluded that better long term, sustainable flood risk management strategies are urgently needed.

The cities’ people and economic assets are exposed to flood risk from the sea, rising rivers and intense urban rainfall.  To investigate how well these flood risks are currently assessed and managed, the research developed a sustainable flood risk appraisal (SFRA) framework, to facilitate benchmarking of flood practice and policy. The work focussed on the Pearl River Delta, particularly its cities of Shenzhen and Hong Kong, with analysis drawing on interviews with a wide range of stakeholders in the region, and on policy and practice reports.

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