A consortium of Brazilian and UK researchers, including University of Edinburgh’s Professor Patrick Meir, Chair in Ecosystem System, School of Geosciences, have secured a £3.7 million UK Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) research grant to investigate the combined risk of climate change and deforestation to the integrity of Amazonian forests. Understanding these threats is vital because deforestation and climate change could lead to irreversible changes to Amazonian forests with severe consequences for biodiversity, carbon storage and local-to-global ecosystem services.

The threats to the Amazon region are multi-faceted and potentially disastrous. The forests in the Amazon region may have several ‘tipping points’, where the combined effects of accumulated deforestation, climate warming beyond 2°C and alterations to the timing and amount of rainfall could lead to runaway changes where degraded ecosystems replace tropical forests in some areas. There have been recent reductions in the deforestation rate. However, the prevailing economic approach has often favoured agricultural commodities such as soybeans, meat and timber over standing forests, even though studies suggest that halving tropical forest deforestation rates could contribute up to US $3.7 trillion to the global economy.

Professor Meir climbing a monitoring tower which measures gases released by the forest

To advance our understanding of the Amazon region’s tipping points, the international team will explore whether Amazonian forests risk losing their integrity and long-term resilience and, if so, what regions are most at risk. The aim is to study both intact and disturbed forests, leveraging a powerful combination of new on-the-ground measurements, advanced climate and land use modelling, and multiple satellite data streams. The work will build an advanced understanding `of how Amazonian forests respond to and recover from deforestation and climate stress, and the team will actively engage with relevant policy creation, regionally and internationally.

I got involved in this research because of the lack of understanding over what the different risks are to the Amazon. Risks which have fundamental consequences for societies and economies in the region,” Professor Meir explained.

For Professor Meir, this project contributes to a life-long interest in the big questions around tropical forests: in particular, questions on forest function, forest diversity, forest change and how these changes might affect the people who rely on them. The Amazon region is so large that new advances have the potential to provide essential insights about how these tropical forests affect the Earth system, as well as across Amazonia.

Professor Patrick Meir poses for a picture during his fieldwork research in the Amazon Forest.

It takes multiple skill sets to address the consortium’s questions, and many long-term collaborations between researchers in Brazil and the UK were combined to create this new project. Crucially, the team’s connections include close links with policy-makers who can turn the science into action. This blend of novel high-impact science, underpinned by strong collaborative relationships and a history of world-class research, convinced the funders that this timely work needed support.

In my work, I have tried to find a place where I am motivated by the work, and I feel I can use my expertise to affect the issue,” Professor Meir told the Edinburgh Earth Initiative.

The project is a UK NERC ‘Large Grant’ that will run from 2024-2027. It funds five UK institutions (led by Prof Stephen Sitch, Exeter University) and five Brazilian institutions (led by Prof Tomas Domingues, USP/Ribeirao Preto). It is partnered by many further collaborators across South America, the UK, Europe and the USA.