NASA-funded study brings together researchers from across the world to unravel mysteries of tropical forests

Long-term study to explore biodiversity, gas exchanges and bio-geoscience cycles on a pan-tropical scale, train future researchers

By Ngala Killian Chimtom
Published: Tuesday 27 February 2024
Photo for representation: iStock

Scientists from leading universities and research institutions worldwide convened in Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon, to initiate a knowledge-sharing initiative regarding a scoping process. This will guide a decade-long project on tropical forests funded by the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). 

Tropical forests, crucial for Earth’s climate, biodiversity and carbon storage, face threats of deforestation and degradation.

Georges Moucharou, director of cooperation in the Cameroon Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife, highlighted the importance of tropical forests, stating, “The tropics act as significant water and heat pumps, regulating regional and global climate systems, and contribute to over 30 per cent of terrestrial net primary productivity, and store between 25 per cent and 40 per cent of total terrestrial biomass.”

Despite their significance, tropical forests remain poorly understood. Researchers aim to utilise remote sensing data from NASA in conjunction with ground-level data to comprehensively grasp the biochemistry and ecology of tropical forests and their responses to climate change.

“We know that tropical forest systems are some of the most diverse places on the planet — that’s ecologically and biologically,” said Elsa Ordway of the University of California in Los Angeles.

Existing research reveals that these forests, constituting only 6 per cent of the world’s land surface, harbour 66-80 per cent of all known species and sustain three billion people.

However, these invaluable ecosystems face threats from agriculture, rampant deforestation and mineral exploitation. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), two-thirds of global forest cover loss occurs predominantly in the tropics and sub-tropics, with over 43 million hectares lost between 2004 and 2017.

Ordway stressed the necessity of understanding both the common challenges and the cultural and resource disparities among tropical forest systems. Recognising differences between regions such as the Amazon, the Congo Basin and Southeast Asia, she emphasised the need to comprehend how these distinctions influence responses to environmental changes.

Virginia Zaunbrecher, managing director of the Congo Basin Institute, focused on the Congo Basin Rainforest — a biodiversity hub and significant carbon sink. “We are committed at this meeting to bring together a broad group of stakeholders, including many community representatives and scientists from the region, to come up with a comprehensive and inclusive approach to studying the Congo basin forests,” she told DTE.

Denis Sonwa, a senior researcher at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), explained that the PANGEA project aims to mobilise experts globally to understand the workings of tropical forests comprehensively. “It’s not just about doing it in Cameroon, but it’s going to be pan-tropical.”

The study seeks to explore various components, including biodiversity, gas exchanges, and bio-geoscience cycles on a pan-tropical scale, he added.

Highlighting the long-term vision of the project, Sonwa emphasised the importance of training the next generation of researchers who will continue studying tropical forests beyond the initial 10-year funding period.

NASA’s commitment to funding such extensive studies is notable, as demonstrated by initiatives like the Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE) launched in 2015. This long-term approach aligns with previous successes, such as the Large-Scale Biosphere-Atmosphere Experiment in Amazonia (LBA), initiated in the 1990s, which measured human influences on the Amazon rainforest.

Scientists underscored the need for prolonged studies in tropical forests, where climatic phenomena like El Nino and La Nina introduce significant year-to-year variability. Elsa stated, “You need a longer time frame to understand how such ecosystems function, and it is that understanding that will enable policymakers to make informed decisions.”

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