NASA Satellites Detect Extensive Drought Impact on Amazon Forests

Released: 29-Mar-2011 9:00 AM EDT
Embargo expired: 29-Mar-2011 12:00 PM EDT
Source Newsroom: Boston University College of Arts and Sciences
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Citations Geophysical Research Letters

Newswise — BOSTON—Researchers at Boston University, NASA and Federal University, Vicosa, Brazil have published a new NASA-funded study that shows widespread reductions in the greenness of forests in the vast Amazon basin in South America were caused by the record-breaking drought of 2010.

"The greenness levels of Amazonian vegetation—a measure of its health—a decreased dramatically over an area more than three and one-half times the size of Texas and did not recover to normal levels, even after the drought ended in late October 2010," said Liang Xu, the study's lead author from Boston University.

The drought sensitivity of Amazon rainforests is a subject of intense study. Scientists are concerned that because computer models predict that in a changing climate with warmer temperatures and altered rainfall patterns the ensuing moisture stress could cause some of the rainforests to be replaced by grasslands or woody savannas, releasing the carbon stored in the rotting wood into the atmosphere, which could accelerate global warming. The United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned similar droughts could be more frequent in the Amazon region in the future.

The comprehensive study was prepared by an international team of scientists using more than a decade's worth of satellite data from NASA's Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) and Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM).

Analysis of these data produced detailed maps of vegetation greenness declines from the 2010 drought. The study has been accepted for publication in “Geophysical Research Letters,” a journal of the American Geophysical Union.

The authors first developed maps of drought-affected areas using thresholds of below-average rainfall as a guide. Next they identified affected vegetation using two different greenness indexes as surrogates for green leaf area and physiological functioning.

The maps show the 2010 drought reduced the greenness of approximately 965,000 square miles of vegetation in the Amazon—more than four times the area affected by the last severe drought in 2005.

"The MODIS vegetation greenness data suggest a more widespread, severe and long-lasting impact to Amazonian vegetation than what can be inferred based solely on rainfall data," said Arindam Samanta, a co-lead author from Atmospheric and Environmental Research Inc. in Lexington, Mass.

The severity of the 2010 drought was also seen in records of water levels in rivers across the Amazon basin. Water levels started to fall in August 2010, reaching record low levels in late October. Water levels only began to rise with the arrival of rains later that winter.

"Last year was the driest year on record based on 109 years of Rio Negro water level data at the Manaus harbor. For comparison, the lowest level during the so-called once-in-a-century drought in 2005, was only eighth lowest," said Marcos Costa, coauthor from the Federal University in Vicosa, Brazil.

As anecdotal reports of a severe drought began to appear in the news media during the summer of 2010, the authors started near-real time processing of massive amounts of satellite data. They used a new capability, the NASA Earth Exchange (NEX), built for the NASA Advanced Supercomputer facility at the agency's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. NEX is a collaborative supercomputing environment that brings together data, models and computing resources.

With NEX, the study's authors quickly obtained a large-scale view of the impact of the drought on the Amazon forests and were able to complete the analysis by January 2011. Similar reports about the impact of the 2005 drought were published about two years after the fact.

"Timely monitoring of our planet's vegetation with satellites is critical, and with NEX it can be done efficiently to deliver near-real time information, as this study demonstrates," said study coauthor Ramakrishna Nemani, a research scientist at Ames. An article about the NEX project appears in this week's issue of Eos, the weekly newspaper of the American Geophysical Union.

For more information about this study and the NEX project, visit:

https://c3.ndc.nasa.gov/nex/projects/1209/

For information about NASA and agency programs, visit: http://www.nasa.gov

As of the date of this press release, the paper by Xu et al. is still “in press.” Journalists and public information officers (PIOs) of educational and scientific institutions who have registered with AGU can download a PDF copy of this paper by clicking on this link:

http://www.agu.org/journals/pip/gl/2011GL046824-pip.pdf

Copies of the paper also are available by emailing a request to Kathleen O’Neil at koneil@agu.org or Peter Weiss at pweiss@agu.org. Please provide your name, the name of your publication, and your phone number. Neither the paper nor this press release is under embargo.

About Boston University—Founded in 1839, Boston University is an internationally recognized institution of higher education and research. With more than 30,000 students, it is the fourth largest independent university in the United States. BU contains 17 colleges and schools along with a number of multi-disciplinary centers and institutes which are central to the school's research and teaching mission.


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