NASA Funding Continues Research – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
The HWS Update

NASA Funding Continues Research

For three years, Eugenio Arima, assistant professor of environmental studies, has been part of a four-member team doing research for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) on the impact of deforestation on the Amazon rain forest.

He and his team, that includes researchers from Michigan State University and Duke University, were among several Brazilian and American researchers presenting at the International Scientific “Amazon in Perspective: Integrated Science for a Sustainable Future” Conference in Manaus, Brazil in November.

Intended to stimulate compelling debate emphasizing synergy, cooperation and integration of research that will result in an interdisciplinary analysis of current and future scenarios of environmental changes in the Amazon, the conference brought together major research programs in the Amazon including LBA (Large Scale Biosphere-Atmosphere Project in the Amazon); GEOMA (Amazonian Environmental Modeling Network) and PPBio (Biodiversity Research Program).

In revealing the latest scientific findings on biodiversity, climate and land use cover research in the Amazon, as well as discussing and analyzing various scenarios of environment change caused by deforestation and climate change, the intent of the conference was to identify new strategies and priorities, both for research planning for the region and for actions supporting sustainable development.

“We are all studying how climate change will impact the Amazon rain forest and how deforestation will impact the climate – not only regionally, but globally,” Arima explained.

His team was responsible for modeling changes in the Brazilian rainforest land space resulting from deforestation, fire and logging.

Using the same sophisticated, cutting-edge Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology he teaches HWS students to use, they developed a computational model using GIS.

“We were able to locate areas of interest to loggers and using some computational models we can identify where they will build their roads to access logging sites,” Arima said.

His contribution was to model how loggers fragment the forest.

“When loggers fragment the forest, the understory (area of a forest that grows in the shade of the forest canopy) gets very dry and some light penetrates the forest. It becomes susceptible to fire, which is one of the major contributors to climate change. When you have a fire you are releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere,” he said. “Fires are very frequent in the dry season of the Amazon. During El Nino years, it’s even worse.”      

Within the next year when the NASA-funded LBA project will conclude, the team hopes to validate the accuracy of its model using satellite imagery.

“We have to compare what our model predicts with what has actually happened by comparing satellite images. We need to see if our model is accurate in its predictions of where the roads should be. Once we get a good model in our validation procedure, we can use it to extrapolate into the future,” Arima said.

Data collection for his ongoing research during the past three years has included interviewing Amazon loggers and farmers to understand how they operate.

“We can’t accurately model what they do without understanding how they operate,” Arima said.

 For this recent conference, he also collaborated and presented findings on another research project with team members in which they predicted, through use of climate models what the Amazon will look like in terms of deforestation in 20 years.

“People are concerned about the tipping point in precipitation and temperature that would change the Amazon from a rainforest into a savanna with shrub like vegetation,” he explained. “If you change the surface of the landscape, you change how sunlight is reflected or absorbed. That will impact the climate.  If there is a reduction in precipitation, that would cause a change in vegetation, making it more like the savannas in Africa. We found that the predicted deforestation won’t cross the tipping point which is good news.”

Arima said the ongoing research presented at the annual conferences is very useful, stressing the importance on continuous research study.

“Prior to the LBA project we didn’t know very much about the interaction between vegetation, nutrients and climate in general,” he said. “People had little knowledge of the workings of the rainforest, the water and nutrient and carbon cycles and how humans might irreversibly impact the Amazon.”