Amazon Tall Tower Observatory gives scientists the big picture of the rainforest

Taller than the Eiffel Tower, a new mast will provide vital data on the atmosphere and the forest’s health

Donna Bowater
Sunday 17 May 2015 07:40 BST
Two maintenance technicians will stay at the remote site north of Manaus
Two maintenance technicians will stay at the remote site north of Manaus

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.”

The Amazon Tall Tower Observatory (Atto) is the tallest structure in South America at 1,066ft (325m)

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.

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.”

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