‘The Congo more climate-resilient than Amazonia? Jury is still out’

Down To Earth speaks to Elsa Ordway from UCLA about a 10-year study on the ecology of tropical forests in the Congo Basin and other parts of the world

By Ngala Killian Chimtom
Published: Saturday 02 March 2024

 Photograph of the Yaoundé workshop shared by Elsa Ordway on her X handle (@ElsaOrdway). Ordway is in the centre of the front row 

A group of experts and researchers from various countries gathered in Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon, to map out a strategy for a 10-year study on the ecology of tropical forests. The study, which is expected to be funded by US space agency, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), aims to help researchers better understand tropical forests and how they respond to climate change.

The February 21-22, 2024 event was jointly organised by the Congo Basin Institute, the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) as well as the Center for International Forestry Research, with funding from NASA.

Elsa Ordway is Co-Director, Center for Tropical Research and Co-Director, Congo Basin Institute, University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA). She told Down To Earth (DTE) that the differences among tropical forests and how these respond to climate change must be well understood so that policymakers can make informed decisions about their conservation.

Edited excerpts:

Ngala Killian Chimtom (NKC): What is the danger for policymakers if there is a shortfall or gap in information about tropical forests?

Elsa Ordway (EO): Tropical forest regions face some of the biggest trade offs in terms of conserving biodiversity, carbon and other natural resources, while also needing to meet development needs. Identifying ways for sustainable development pathways is going to be one of the biggest challenges in the decades to come, and it is impossible to do so without sufficient science, information and data to support that decision-making process.

NKC: You’re talking about an all-encompassing study on tropical forests. What are the thematic areas you’re looking at in terms of the kind of information you want to fill the existing gap with?

EO: Ultimately, what we are doing here is scoping the possibility of a potential campaign that would actually be pan-tropical. And we are here in Central Africa, because it is the first of several workshops we’ll hold with researchers from different tropical regions. But it is also because some of the data gaps and needs as well as the potential for advancing understanding and training scientists in Central Africa are perhaps the biggest.

What we are hoping to achieve from a campaign like this is a few things.

First, because it would be funded ultimately by NASA, it’s aimed at improving our ability to get information from space-borne remote sensing satellites — information on things like ecosystem structure and function, which informs our ability to measure and monitor things like how much carbon is there in these forests.

We also have an opportunity to improve our monitoring capabilities related to biodiversity, but also of things like agricultural production systems and the scientific advances based on our ability to improve.

Integrating data from the ground all the way up to these satellites is a major priority for this campaign. But there are two other priorities. One is training the next generation of scientists from tropical regions to be able to lead this work.

That was a huge priority in past NASA campaigns, particularly the Large-Scale Biosphere Experiment in Amazonia, LBA, which was led by Brazil in the 1990s. A major outcome of that was not just the ability to understand the functioning of the Amazon as an entire entity and system, but also the training of over 1,000 students — over half of whom were PhD and master’s students from Brazil.

They have since gone on to lead continued efforts to understand the Amazon scientifically, monitor it and make land use planning decisions about it, developing new companies around sustainable development in the Amazon.

Extending that capacity to places like Central Africa is another major part of this campaign.

The third important priority is thinking about improving monitoring capabilities with these types of new satellite sensors. We have the ability to, in near real time, watch the earth’s surface as it’s changing. But we need improved data to be able to do that accurately and effectively. And we need to be able to communicate that to the people who will ultimately use that information.

Hence, it is about improving our monitoring capabilities, but also improving the access that people have to that monitoring information. This is so that they know what it is, how to use it and make informed decisions with it.

NKC: It appears there is evidence suggesting that the forests of the Congo Basin are more resilient to climate change than the Amazon. Is there any scientific explanation to that?

EO: There are several studies that currently point to such a possibility. But we need to reconcile different data sources to conclusively answer that question. I don’t think we’re there yet.

There are satellite datasets which suggest that after extreme events — like an El Nino in 2015 — all tropical regions actually stopped storing carbon and switched to becoming sources of carbon. In a way, they contributed to climate change because of their vulnerability to these extreme years and the impacts of El Nino events like drought and increased fire frequency.

These datasets are usually restricted to what we call ‘intact tropical forests’. We know these ecosystems are a patchwork of not only intact systems that aren’t really impacted by people, but also many places that are impacted by, say, agriculture or logging.


We’re seeing all of that at the satellite scale. At the field scale, a lot of data collection is in these intact forests. It suggests that the Amazon has seen increasing tree mortality rates, which diminishes its forest capability to store carbon.

In Central Africa though, we’re not seeing the same mortality rates or forest dynamics that would decrease its ability to store carbon. In fact, those intact forests have been able to store carbon even after extreme events like the 2015 El Nino.

But we need improved understanding of this system as a whole to know if these systems are truly more resilient and how long will the resilience last. This we can do by reconciling between satellite data and ground data and looking across the entire system, which is partly intact forests, but also many what we call ‘degraded forests’ and other social ecological systems like agricultural systems.

NKC: What were the experiences in other areas that NASA funded, in terms of knowledge gaps that were filled? How would those experiences feed into the current study?

EO: NASA has a long history of funding these large-scale field campaigns that last about a decade. They’re an incredible opportunity to bring the scientific community together.

The current one that’s nearing completion is called the Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment, or ABoVE, campaign. It is a partnership between the US and Canada. ABoVE is focused on understanding Arctic systems and how they’re responding to climate change. But understanding a lot of socio-ecological systems is a part of that campaign as well.

It is about advancing our understanding of how these rapidly changing higher latitude systems are responding to warming temperatures, besides how people are interacting with those changes.

Navigation depends on a lot of frozen ground up there which is now thawing. How are people going to be able to get around? How are hunting and agricultural production systems changing as a result? Land is literally shifting. How can people make decisions about where to live in a place that’s safe andat less risk of future climate impact? So that’s one example.

Another example is the large-scale biosphere experiment in Amazonia, LBA. It happened before ABoVE.

It was in the 1990s when LBA started and was really an effort led by Brazil. NASA got involved through a part of LBA called ‘LBA Eco’. The NASA terrestrial ecology and land use and land cover change programmes supported LBA.

It was an incredibly important scientific opportunity because prior to that, many different scientists focused on trees or the atmosphere or rivers — they were working separately. LBA was one of the first occasions that scientists came together to understand how that system functions as an entire unit.

We’re still continuing to learn so much about the Amazon because of LBA’s legacy. LBA also was successful in its capacity-building efforts as I mentioned earlier about the over 1,000 students trained as part of it.

They are improving our understanding of how rapidly Amazonia is changing in terms of our ability to sense and detect fire activity and how quickly that’s transforming the landscape.

We also have a better understanding of how the carbon cycle is functioning, what different parts of the carbon cycle are changing and in what ways and at what pace.

But now, we also have different efforts that have resulted from the creative, innovative thinking of those people who were trained as a part of LBA. So, there are mapping capabilities now to support people in their need to meet policy requirements that the government sets by monitoring land use cover changes on their lands. And there are training capabilities for that as well.

There is everything — from the science to these new innovative monitoring capabilities and working with different communities to be able to use those data.

NKC: What happens after the study is completed within the 10-year funding period?

EO: The idea would be that it would continue even beyond that funded period. For example, LBA, which I mentioned earlier, was funded for a certain period of time. But even after that funding or campaign ended, it continues to exist today and continues to train people and advance scientific understanding in the Amazon.

We need to first get this project funded and then we shall be able to determine precisely how many students we can fund and support. But we are already starting to have conversations with other agencies, possible donors and funding opportunities to support that.

Because that is really where there is an opportunity to bring in a lot of support from funding, besides local governments supporting education in their countries to prioritise involvement in an effort like this. This is an opportunity to work across institutions, countries and to collaborate.

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