An awe-inspiring visit to AmazonFACE

A landmark experiment is taking place in the Amazon Rainforest. Misha Khan from the Met Office International team explains what AmazonFACE is; why it’s so important and what it was like to visit the experiment site.

At the beginning of December, I had the opportunity to visit the AmazonFACE site in Manaus, Brazil. This current phase of the project is a partnership between leading climate scientists and organisations in Brazil from the National Institute for Amazon Research (INPA) and Unicamp University alongside scientists from the Met Office.

The project also collaborates with The Birmingham Institute of Forest Research (BIFoR), Exeter University and other world-leading consultants, and is funded by the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO). More recently the Brazilian Government have provided a long-term funding commitment to the project.

About AmazonFACE

AmazonFACE is a real-world climate experiment to build understanding of the Amazon rainforest’s response to environmental change. FACE – ‘Free- Air CO2 Enrichment’ – is an existing experimental method where controlled volumes of carbon-dioxide (CO2) are pumped into small areas of forests, crops or other ecosystems to simulate their response to climate change.

Taking place in different parts of the world including the UK and Australia, FACE has, until now, never been done at scale within a tropical forest environment, which is no doubt a huge undertaking. Scientists and experts are keen to experiment with FACE in Brazil as it is crucial to understand the Amazon rainforest’s response to climate change. The experiment seeks to develop understanding of lesser-known areas of climate science such as ‘how will the world’s largest tropical rainforest interact in the future with increased carbon-dioxide emissions in warmer, drier conditions?’

An awe-inspiring experience 

I recently got the opportunity to visit the experiment site. During my week in Manaus, I met the team leading the project from INPA and Unicamp. The scientists have backgrounds in ecosystems, biogeochemistry and meteorology and shared their dreams from over ten years ago of building AmazonFACE. To finally see this come to fruition is inspiring.

With the AmazonFACE team at the INPA office, Manaus. Image: Met Office

The site can be found approximately 70 kilometres from Manaus, the capital of the state of Amazonas. The journey was smooth and straightforward, but I was told that this wasn’t the case up until a few weeks ago as the road turning to the site off the motorway was rather rocky and steep, adding an additional 50 minutes to the journey and slowing progress due to difficult access.

Thanks to funding for the project, the road has improved greatly – reducing arrival time to the site and improving health and safety. It will of course be crucial to ensure that the upgraded road does not encourage others to enter this area of forest and risk leading to deforestation.

As I stepped out of the car and into the Amazon rainforest, it felt as surreal as one can imagine. Feeling cool (in 33°C?!) as I was shaded under huge trees towering over me; observing beautiful species of fruits and plants I had never seen before; and hearing the sounds of animals and birds echoing through the forest!

It was only when I visited the site for AmazonFACE that I truly understood the immensity of the project and appreciated the effort it has taken. Huge concrete blocks carefully built to protect the forest floor and canopy surround a group of trees (those that will be observed) and in the centre of the ring is a 30-metre tower to aid scientists and researchers with their observations of the plants and trees within the parameters of the ring.

This forms one of the six rings of the FACE experiment and it is anticipated that all six rings will be in operation by the beginning of 2024. The installation process was taken with great care to minimise damage to the forest, with the towers being positioned with precision to avoid the removal of trees wherever possible.

At the top of the 30-metre tower, above the canopy of the Amazon Rainforest. Image: Met Office
Project Oversight Group (POG) members including Dr Tomas Domingues, Professor Beto Quesada, Professor David Lapola, Dr Bruno Tanaka, Dr Sabrina Garcia, Dr Richard Norby and Professor Richard Betts at the inauguration of the AmazonFACE site. Behind them is the first site with six tower foundations and two towers that will soon form one completed ring. Image: Met Office

The launch event

The INPA AmazonFACE launch event and site inauguration then followed. These were well attended by key funders and supporters of the project – Secretary Marcelo Morales, Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MCTI), Melanie Hopkins (Deputy Ambassador to the UK, FCDO), Richard Ridout (UK Prosperity Counsellor) and Professor Richard Betts MBE (Met Office). Dr Richard Norby, Honorary Professor at the University of Birmingham, was also in attendance – Richard is recognised as the main authority in FACE systems in the world.

During the press interviews and speeches, Professor Richard Betts shared encouraging words, “AmazonFACE’s pioneering work will provide crucial new understanding of forest processes, which will help us to further improve Earth system models to provide improved estimates of the carbon balance to keep global warming well below 2°C.

The overall tone of the two-day event was very positive. Senior attendees shared their excitement at seeing this phase of the project come to life, filling the AmazonFACE project team and scientists with happiness and pride which came through in their emotional speeches.

Senior representatives from MCTI, FCDO and INPA attended the launch event. Image: FCDO

Next steps

All collaborators are committed to working in partnership to complete the infrastructure build for the first pair of rings and control the level of CO2 in the canopy, plot the remaining four ring locations in the forest, and complete the site groundwork ready for another sixty-four, thirty-five-metre-tall towers and four tower cranes.

Whilst the remaining work is undertaken to complete the AmazonFACE site infrastructure, which is a pioneering experiment on its own, the scientific community are already planning the requirements to start the experimental research phase of the project, which will generate significant data helping to explore the answers to their questions.

I feel privileged to have visited the site and see it come to fruition and I would like to thank the wonderful AmazonFACE team and FCDO Brazil for their hospitality and time. I look forward to learning more about the project in the future!

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