The Amazon rainforest has an extraordinary impact on the planet, producing about half of all the oxygen in the atmosphere.
Now a mast, taller than the Eiffel Tower, has been built deep in the heart of the forest – amid jaguars, snakes and giant trees – to monitor chemical changes in the air that could shed new light on global climate change.
The Amazon Tall Tower Observatory (Atto) is the tallest structure in South America. At 1,066ft (325m) – 3ft higher than Paris’s structure – its reach will allow researchers to gain a dramatic new perspective.
“For science, this is a very big and complex piece of work,” said Antonio Manzi, a researcher at the National Institute of Amazonian Research (Inpa) in Manaus in the state of Amazonas. “Here in Brazil, we had a great and well-documented interest in having a tall tower to better study the mechanisms of the atmosphere’s surface. Various scientific questions made this a necessity.”
Mr Manzi said there were four lines of research for the team of scientists, including chemical changes in the atmosphere, the formation of clouds and the effect of global warming on photosynthesis by plants far below. By monitoring such changes, researchers from Inpa and the Max Planck Institute in Germany are hoping to see how climate change is contributing to extreme weather events such as floods and droughts.
Stefan Wolff, from the Max Planck Institute, said that in the past decade, the state of Amazonas had seen two severe floods and two severe droughts. There are currently 39 districts of Amazonas in a state of emergency because of annual floods caused by rises in river levels, affecting almost 320,000 people.
Meanwhile, Sao Paulo has been suffering a historic drought, which some have attributed to deforestation in the rainforest. “When the temperature increases, we have more energy in the atmosphere,” Mr Wolff said. “And when we have more energy in the atmosphere, a part of this has to be released. A good way of releasing this is a strong rain so there’s a great probability that some rains will be even heavier.”
The rainforest was already seeing strong winds causing “blowdowns” of trees, Mr Wolff added. The Atto tower is expected to start operating in the second half of this year once the final equipment and lifts are installed.
The first stage of the €8.4m (£6m) project, launched in 2009, was to build two 260ft pilot towers on the site, 90 miles north of Manaus. Scientists chose the location for its pristine forest and lack of imminent development, which might interfere with the experiments.
In pictures: Biggest threats to the rainforests
In pictures: Biggest threats to the rainforests
Aerial view af an area devastated by clandestine gold mining in the Jamanxim National Forest, state of Para. With 1,3 million hectares, the Jamanxim National Forest is a microsm that replicates what happens in the Amazon, where thousands of hectares of land are prey of illegal woodcutters, stock breeders and gold miners
Destruction of the rainforest, deforestation in Borneo
3/8 Amazon rainforest
Intensive logging makes rainforest fires more likely as the Earth warms
4/8 Amazon rainforest
The extent of the environmental damage in the Amazon rainforest
Destruction remains from tropical rainforest in Kuala Cenaku in Riau Province, Sumatra. Norway entered a partnership with Indonesia to support Indonesia's efforts to reduce emissions from deforestation and degradation of forests and peat lands. The business of pulp, palm oil and wood are causing the deforestation of Sumatra, the largest island owned by Indonesia, and is contributing global climate change to the extinction of many of the world's rare species
An area that has been cleared of rainforest to make way for a palm oil plantation in Sabah, Malaysia
Regenerated palm oil trees are seen growing on the site of destroyed tropical rainforest in Kuala Cenaku
Brazil launched the Amazon Fund, aimed at protecting the rainforest so vital to the world's climate, and at combating climate change. In December 2008 Brazil launched a national climate change plan which proposed to cut the country's deforestation rate in half by 2018
But that remoteness brings unusual risks for the scientists and others going there. “The risks of animals – snakes, jaguars – they exist, because it’s
a jungle environment, the law of the jungle,” Mr Manzi said. With the Atto tower’s structure now complete, two maintenance technicians will remain on site, staying in contact with scientists via satellite phone.
The tower complements the Zotto tower in Siberia, which was also built in partnership with the Max Planck Institute in 2006. Data from the tower will be shared with scientists from both countries daily and almost in real-time.
“In 30 years, we will watch changes in climate and see the impact,” Mr Manzi said. “This is a scientific project. The results, we hope, will be used [to influence] public policy.”