“We’re going to measure things that have never before been measured in an area we know far too little about. I’m convinced we’ll be taking a significant step forward in climate research.” This is how Wouter Peters reacted to having just been allocated an ERC grant of no less than €2.3 million to carry out research into the carbon cycle in the Amazon rainforest.
During the serious droughts in 2005 and 2010, the carbon balance in the Amazon region changed from being a carbon sink to a carbon source. It is expected that such droughts will become more frequent and more intense in the future. The question is therefore what the impact will be on the carbon balance and consequently on the climate. Wouter Peters: “The carbon-climate feedback is one of the largest uncertainties in climate predictions because both the extent of CO2 uptake and the drought response is unknown for rainforests. The amount of carbon involved in these changes is large enough to have a significant impact on future fossil-fuel emissions.”
Wouter Peters will be doing his research together with the universities of Groningen (where he is a part-time professor), Utrecht and Leeds, and the Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais in Brazil. The research will focus on the question: ‘How much CO2 does vegetation in the Amazon region absorb and how does this uptake change as a result of drought?’ The question is extremely relevant because the Amazon region has an enormous biomass, so its carbon balance is characterised by a very large CO2 uptake due to photosynthesis. However, the CO2 emission is almost as large because of decay or burning of biomass. The net CO2 balance in the Amazon region will be an important factor in the global CO2 balance over the next 50 years.
ASICA (Airborne Stable Isotopes of CO2 from the Amazon) – the programme that has been awarded the grant – will involve gathering data on this balance by measuring CO2 in the atmosphere above the rainforest. Small aeroplanes will make a number of flights every month from five different locations in order to collect air samples to a height of up to 6 km above the rainforest. This strategy is unique because the CO2 uptake of millions of square kilometres of rainforest will be measured simultaneously in the atmosphere; signals from the surface always mix rapidly in the warm and humid atmosphere of the tropics. Taking samples from a network of ground measurements cannot be done on such a large scale because the vegetation of the area is so impenetrable and diverse. The levels of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the collected air samples will be measured, as well as the ratio of stable isotopes. All measurements will then be integrated by using the ‘CarbonTracker’, which Wouter Peters has already developed (www.carbontracker.eu).
“There is no doubt that this is the most important research I’ve been able to carry out in my career so far,” Wouter Peters added. “I’m really enthusiastic about the freedom and opportunities this ERC grant permits us, and especially about the science we’re going to be able to do. The programme will continue to build on the research lines which, with the help of my 2008 VIDI grant, I’ve been able to develop over the last few years with my AIOs and Postdocs. I just hope they all want to stay on for a while …