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September 18, 2021

Scientist dicusses Amazon rainforest research

By JACOB TOOK | October 19, 2017

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COURTESY OF JACOB TOOK Richard J. Norby will conduct the Free-Air CO2 Enrichment experiment.

The Portuguese Language Program and the Program for Latin American Studies hosted researcher Richard J. Norby to speak on Monday about his upcoming project in the Amazon rainforest.

This project, called the Amazon Free-Air CO2 Enrichment (FACE) experiment, explores the effects of higher levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) on plant life in a section of the Amazon rainforest.

Norby works in the Environmental Sciences Division of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, an American laboratory sponsored by the Department of Energy that focuses on researching solutions to energy and security problems.

Norby explained that scientists are largely uncertain about the fate of the Amazon rainforest, describing it as a wild card in the subject of climate change.

If the warming climate leads to a lack of moisture, plant life in the forest may die and release large amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere, accelerating global warming.

Alternatively, this process might lead to more fertile plant life, causing the Amazon rainforest to consume more CO2 and slow the effects of climate change.

Norby hopes to find that increased CO2 levels will fertilize plants in the rainforest and allow them to consume greater amounts of the gas.

“A lot of analyses consider the Amazon rainforest an important tipping point in the system,” he said. “We think that increasing CO2 concentration could buffer the Amazon forest against a lot of the deleterious effects of climate change and thereby favor the long-term permanence of the forest.”

He said that scientists are uncertain about the effects of increased CO2 on the rainforest because it is difficult to replicate the process of global warming in a closed experiment.

“Climate change is pushing the temperature out to where there are no plants on Earth living under those regimes now,” he said. “There’s no current climate that’s an analogue to the future and that increases the uncertainty and increases the push to try to understand this better.”

In the FACE experiment, which has already been carried out in different locations around the world, mostly in the U.S. and Europe, researchers aim to raise the CO2 levels in a small section of forest to monitor the results.

At the site in the Amazon, researchers have constructed a ring of towers to increase the amount of CO2 in the rainforest canopy. The area, about 30 meters in diameter, can be closely observed by researchers.

Norby said that he enjoyed exploring the plant life and wildlife of the rainforest.

“It’s a really cool place, I really enjoy being there,” Norby said. “There’s a lot of what I like to think of as magical plants that we just don’t see in Baltimore, and of course some very cool wildlife. It’s been a great place to work.”

Norby explained that the project was more difficult to carry out in the Amazon than in other sites in the U.S. because of the significantly higher number of plant species at the site.

He said that the infrastructure of Brazil, such as the road leading to the research site, is more difficult to work with and added that they were also uncertain about funding.

The first stage of the experiment, Norby said, was funded by the Inter-American Development Bank, an institution that supports development in Latin America. However, after they rescinded their support, Norby said his team had been looking for alternative sources.

“That’s one of the reasons there haven’t been experiments in the tropics before — it’s more expensive and it’s hard to get the U.S. government to support it,” he said. “There aren’t any congressmen that have tropical rainforests in their backyard, so it’s a little bit harder to sell within the U.S. funding sources.”

He said that their main sponsor in the U.S. had been the Department of Energy and added that they had not gotten support from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

“Even in the past, the EPA hasn’t supported it,” he said. “If they never did in the past, they certainly don’t now because they don’t believe in [climate change].”

Alina Andrews, a junior in the Latin American studies department, said that the Amazon was the ideal place for Norby to conduct his experiment because it has a wide range of plant life and wildlife.

She added that Norby’s visit was important because of the current political climate in the U.S., saying that it is important to take the issues seriously.

“It’s really relevant right now because obviously we have an administration that doesn’t really believe in... greenhouse gases,” she said. “What we know about Brazil is partying and samba and music and culture, but we don’t really get into the environmental issues.”

Freshman Lana Weidgenant said that discussions of climate change often focus on the Arctic, as well as North American and European polar regions.

“It’s important that people also realize that the effects are worldwide, especially in areas that are known for being natural forests and things that we want to preserve,” she said. “I really appreciate the international focus, not just talking about the United States but how it’s affecting natural lands around the world.”

Freshman Giuliana Nicolucci-Altman said that it is important for students to get perspectives like Norby’s, rather than only learning about climate change on TV.

“In our political climate of our politicians denying climate change, it’s becoming increasingly important to have experts in the field come talk to students to expose them to the reality of the effects of climate change and bring them closer to what that reality might be,” she said.

She agreed that the international focus is important, particularly considering Norby’s difficulty with finding funding for his project.

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