Brazil is putting itself at the forefront of efforts to better track deforestation and the threat posed by climate change as delegates prepare to meet in South Africa for a key summit on global warming.
Recent studies suggest more frequent and severe droughts threaten to turn the Amazon rainforest from a sponge that absorbs carbon emissions into a dangerous source of the gases, accelerating global warming.
Drought, deforestation and logging cause more than two percent of global carbon emissions in the Amazon. Until now, much of it went undetected as it was protected by the forest's giant canopy.
Now the South American country's space agency INPE is close to launching a satellite with NASA that will provide a close-up look at how deforestation is affecting the Amazon and other ecosystems around the globe.
The planned satellite - Global Terrestrial Ecosystems Observatory (GTEO) - can monitor global vegetation productivity through an infrared camera that will separate data with unprecedented precision.
This technological breakthrough, which will cost US$250 million, will help scientists predict the reactions of carbon cycles and ecosystems to different climate conditions.
The GTEO, expected to be launched in 2016, will provide specific information about the type of vegetation that is growing in previously cleared land.
The head of Brazil's space agency, Gilberto Camara, said the new tool will help focus efforts on reviving damaged ecosystems.
"We want to do more than just see if there are trees or shrubs or cleared land - that is what we do now with remote sensing. We want to have more detailed measurements of how the trees are growing, whether they are under stress, whether they are in trauma and what is the response of the vegetation under various conditions of change," he said.
At this point, scientists can only speculate about patterns of weather in the Amazon - such as the massive droughts of 2005 and 2010 which were both labelled as "once-in-a-century" events.
Marcio Astrini, Greenpeace's forests campaign coordinator, said Brazil has the world's most advanced deforestation monitoring system. However, it is still not enough to tell whether the original vegetation will recover in cleared areas.
Big fires, set by farmers to clear land for agriculture, are the main cause of deforestation. But they continue to set smaller fires to maintain their plots and the damage is often hidden from satellite imaging because they burn under the tree canopy.
Mr Camara said he believes more information on forest clearing is vital to putting the brakes on deforestation.
The widespread droughts last decade renewed concerns that the two intense dry spells fit predictions by some climate models that the forest will face greater weather extremes this century. More intense droughts will make it more vulnerable to fires, which in turn could damage its ability to recover.
Under the more extreme scenarios, large parts of the forest could turn into a savannah-like ecosystem by the middle of the century with much lower levels of animal and plant biodiversity.
Mr Astrini warned that there is no use in investing in more advanced deforestation monitoring if the Brazilian Senate presses ahead with a new controversial land reform bill recently approved by the Congress.
"There are also two studies, one carried out by USP (Sao Paulo University) and one by the University of Brasilia that indicate the increase of up to 40 percent in the deforestation rates by 2020 with this new (forest) bill that has been ratified. Therefore this bill puts at stake Brazil's image and the positions and commitments the country has agreed to internationally," he said.
Many critics warn that the overhaul of Brazil's law - which would give amnesties for illegal tree-felling in recent decades - is a surrender to farming interests and would set back recent progress in protecting the Amazon.
3 News / Reuters
source: newshub archive