US: A new NASA-funded study has revealed draught and consequently widespread reductions in the greenness of the forests in the vast Amazon basin in South America caused by the record-breaking drought of 2010. The comprehensive study was prepared by an international team of scientists using more than a decade’s worth of satellite data from NASA’s Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) and Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM). The study has been accepted for publication in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical .
The authors first developed maps of drought-affected areas using thresholds of below-average rainfall as a guide. Next they identified affected vegetation using two different greenness indices as surrogates for green leaf area and physiological functioning. The maps show the 2010 drought reduced the greenness of approximately 965,000 square miles of vegetation in the Amazon – more than four times the area affected by the last severe drought in 2005.
“The MODIS vegetation greenness data suggest a more widespread, severe and long-lasting impact to Amazonian vegetation than what can be inferred based solely on rainfall data,” said Arindam Samanta, a co-lead author from Atmospheric and Environmental Research Inc. in Lexington, Mass.
“The greenness levels of Amazonian vegetation – a measure of its health – decreased dramatically over an area more than three and one-half times the size of Texas and did not recover to normal levels, even after the drought ended in late October 2010,” said Liang Xu, the study’s lead author from Boston University.
The drought sensitivity of Amazon rainforests is a subject of intense study. Scientists are concerned because computer models predict that in a changing climate with warmer temperatures and altered rainfall patterns the ensuing moisture stress could cause some of the rainforests to be replaced by grasslands or woody savannas.
This would cause the carbon stored in the rotting wood to be released into the atmosphere, which could accelerate global warming. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned that similar droughts could be more frequent in the Amazon region in the future.