Amazonian drought

There has been a flurry of recent commentary concerning Amazon drought – some of it good, some of it not so good. The good stuff has revolved around a recently-completed interesting field experiment that was run out of the Woods Hole Research Center (not to be confused with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution), where they have been examining rainforest responses to drought – basically by using a very large rainproof tent to divert precipitation at ground level (the trees don’t get covered up). As one might expect, a rainforest without rain does not do well! But exactly what happens when and how the biosphere responds are poorly understood. This 6 year long field experiment may provide a lot of good new data on plant strategies for dealing with drought which will be used to improve the models and our understanding of the system.

The not-so-good part comes when this experiment is linked too directly to the ongoing drought in the southern Amazon. In the experiment, older tree mortality increased markedly after the third year of no rain at all (with around 1 in 10 trees dying). Since parts of the Amazon are now entering a second year of drought (possibly related to a persistent northward excursion of the ITCZ), the assumption in the Independent story (with the headline ‘One year to save the Amazon’) was that trees will start dying forest-wide next year should the drought continue.

This is incorrect for a number of reasons. Firstly, drought conditions are not the same as no rain at all – the rainfall deficit in the middle of the Amazon is significant, but not close to 100%! Secondly, the rainfall deficits are quite regionally variable, so a forest-wide response is highly unlikely. Also, the trees won’t all die in just one more year and could recover, depending on yearly variation in climate.

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