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The Amazon Forest Inventory Network is an international collaboration to understand the dynamics of Amazon ecosystems. Since the year 2000 we have established a systematic framework for long-term monitoring of this region, which holds more biodiversity, water, and carbon than any other forest on Earth. This framework is based around long-term forest inventory plots, but also includes extensive collection of soil and plant biogeochemical data, and more intensive and high frequency monitoring of a subset of sites. RAINFOR works with partners across the nations of Amazonia, taking account of the modulating role of environmental variables like soil nutrition, and the need to help develop a new generation of Amazon ecologists.
Since 2008 RAINFOR has been supported by the Andes and Amazon Initiative of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, as well as by funding agencies in the UK (NERC: the AMAZONICA consortium), the EU, and South America. RAINFOR was first established as part of CARBONSINK, the European contribution to the large-scale biosphere-atmosphere experiment in Amazonia (LBA). The European Union also supported training in 2004-2006 (Pan-Amazonia) and fieldwork in 2011-2014 (GeoCarbon). Other contributors include the Max-Planck Institute for Biogeochemisty (co-ordination and fieldwork 2002-2004), the National Geographic Society (US) and Royal Society (UK) (Peru 2001-2003), and Colciencias (2011-2013). We work closely with other monitoring networks including in Africa (AfriTRON), and world-wide (ForestPlots, TROBIT, GEM) to standardise protocols and advance understanding of forest responses to planetary change.
The tropical forests of Amazonia are one of the most important ecosystems on earth, accounting for 45% of the world's tropical forest and storing 40% of the carbon residing in terrestrial vegetation (Malhi and Grace 2000). Relatively small changes in the structure and/or function of these forests could therefore have global consequences for biodiversity, the carbon cycle and the rate of climate change.
Apparently undisturbed tropical forests, remote from areas of deforestation or other significant human influences, have been undergoing unexpected changes. Long-term monitoring of tropical forest plots indicates that tree populations experienced increased rates of mortality and recruitment ("turnover") in the latter part of the last century (Phillips and Gentry 1994; Lewis et al. 2004, Phillips et al. 2004). These plots also show for the tropical Americas that the basal area and biomass of mature forests increased over the same period (Phillips et al. 1998, Baker et al. 2004), suggesting a sink for atmospheric CO2 in Amazonia of 0.3 - 0.7 Pg C per year.
RAINFOR was established to bring together researchers throughout Amazonia who maintain permanent forest sample plots. By compiling and comparing these studies on a regional scale a whole new level of information becomes available: information that provides vital insights into the mechanisms underlying the current responses of Amazonian ecosystems to climate and the possible future of Amazonia under global change scenarios.
The aims of RAINFOR are to:
At 6 million km2, the Amazon forest covers an area 25 times as great as the United Kingdom (or 15 times the size of California), and spans nine countries of which the largest is Brazil. This region contains about one fifth of all species on earth, one fifth of all carbon in the earth’s biomass, and is home to several million people. Water vapor from the region helps nurture agriculture further south, including the biofuel crops which power millions of cars. Each year Amazon forests cycle 18 billion tons of carbon - more than twice as much carbon as the combined emissions of all fossil fuels burnt in the world - so a small change in the net balance of the Amazon forests and soils would have a significant affect on the speed with which carbon dioxide is increasing in the earth’s atmosphere.
Amazonian forests are under strong human pressure through logging, forest to pasture conversion and exploitation of natural resources. They also face a warming climate and a changing atmospheric environment. Because of the vast scale of Amazonia, these factors have the potential to significantly modify the global atmospheric greenhouse gas burden (CO2, CH4), the earth’s atmospheric chemistry and climate, and the overall biodiversity of the planet. Some modelled scenarios involve huge releases of carbon from Amazon soil and vegetation, accelerating climate change globally, even before accounting for the impacts of direct deforestation processes.
While the role of Amazonia in the carbon cycle is clearly of global importance, its exact behavior remains contentious even for that portion not undergoing rapid land use change. Earlier RAINFOR research has shown that forests have actually stored extra carbon over recent years, enough to slow the rate of climate change, but this subsidy from nature may now be under threat from climate change itself. Careful, on-the-ground monitoring of forests across the region is essential to assess this threat, and to better understand the global climate benefits that Amazonia provides. Understanding the carbon dynamics of the whole system is critical if we are to determine its potential role in slowing / accelerating climate change through the 21st century, and the likely fate of its exceptional biodiversity.