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The researchers measured the growth and photosynthesis rates of trees at 13 rainforest plots across Brazil, Peru and Bolivia, comparing plots that were affected by the strong drought of 2010 with unaffected plots. They found that while growth rates of the trees in drought-affected plots were unchanged, the rate of photosynthesis – by which trees convert carbon into energy to fuel their activities – slowed down by around 10 percent over six months. Their paper, published in the journal, Nature, concludes that trees may be channelling their more limited energy reserves into growth rather than maintaining their own health. Computer simulations of the biosphere have predicted such responses to drought, but these are the first direct observations of this effect across tropical forests.
The three-year international study is the first detailed, large-scale examination of the complete carbon cycle, looking at both the growth and metabolism of forest plots at different sites across the Amazon basin. Each of the plots is one hectare and contains around 400-500 trees. The rainforest plots chosen were representative of the varying climatic and soil conditions of the Amazon basin. The study is the product of a new effort, co-ordinated by Oxford University, to closely track the functioning of tropical forests across the world: the Global Ecosystems Monitoring network (GEM).
The findings are the result of a huge and challenging field effort: over a three-year period, local students and technicians spent several weeks every month at each site to measure each tree’s woody growth rate and the number of small roots that had grown. Researchers weighed monthly leaf fall, using nets, to establish the number of leaves each tree was producing. They also used infra-red gas analysers to track the release of carbon dioxide from living wood, roots, and leaves to estimate the metabolic activity of the forest. By chance, the Amazon drought of 2010 occurred right in the middle of this observation window, but only affected some parts of Amazonia.