Tropics

Tropical forests are one of the only large-scale tools available to combat global warming.

There is no solution for climate change without tropical forests. At Woodwell, our researchers focus on quantifying and communicating the ecological, climatic, and economic risks of deforestation—and how to reduce these risks by implementing innovative economic and policy incentives to conserve forests on public and private lands.

Experts
All Tropics Experts

Almost all of the carbon stored on land is in forests.

The vast majority of stored carbon lies in tropical forests, especially in the Amazon and Congo River basins. This stock of carbon is equivalent to about 2/3 of the carbon already in the atmosphere. Every hectare that is burned to make way for agriculture and development releases more CO2 into the atmosphere.

Forests as mountains illustrates where carbon is stored.

Above: Trees absorb and store immense amounts of carbon. With carbon storage represented as elevation, tropical forests look like dark green mountains.

Data from Baccini et. al (2018)

Map by Greg Fiske

Forests, primarily tropical forests, also remove about 30% of the carbon emitted to the atmosphere by humans each year. At the same time, they act like giant air conditioners, returning more than two thirds of all incoming sunlight and rainfall to the atmosphere as water vapor. This cools the land surface and creates rainfall both locally and thousands of miles away.

Keeping tropical forests standing—and restoring them where we can—is the simplest and cheapest mechanism to avoid catastrophic climate change and mitigate the impacts of ongoing change.

Left: Use of a drone allows researchers to view the Amazon forest from above.

Right: A research tower at Tanguro Ranch in Matto Grasso, Brazil collects data.

Photos courtesy of Paulo Brando

There’s still time to act, if we act now.

Over the past 15 years, great effort has gone into combating deforestation, resulting in, for instance, a 70% reduction of annual deforestation rates in Brazil. However, expanding infrastructure, current agricultural practices, and loopholes in environmental legislation threaten these reductions and encourage deforestation. We have the tools to reverse the trend.

At Woodwell, we work to align science with strategic policy interventions to predict the potentially ruinous climate and economic impacts of continuing deforestation, to clearly illustrate these findings for key decision makers, and to help develop effective solutions to ensure the future of forests, sustainable food systems, and livelihoods.

Where we’re focused

Tropical forests are incredibly important to the Earth’s systems. Not only do they capture and store carbon from the atmosphere, they create precipitation and water vapor that gets transferred around the globe. As the Earth’s climate goes through dramatic changes, Woodwell researchers are expanding knowledge of the roles played by both old-growth and new-growth forests. This understanding can directly inform policies that are put in place, and fundamentally impact how we think about deforestation, reforestation—and protecting our existing forests.

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Above: A misty morning over Amazon forest.

© Chris Linder

As the world’s population surges, agriculture in the tropics is expanding to meet increased food demand. This directly results in deforestation, which has multiple impacts: local temperatures increase, water in the climate system declines, and more carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere.

Woodwell researchers study agricultural use in the tropics to help increase production of already-cleared land while monitoring the impact on soils and streams. On-the-ground data are combined with satellite imagery and computer models to identify the effects of deforestation and agricultural practices throughout tropical regions to enable better policy decisions and maximize climate change mitigation efforts.

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Above: Harvesting of soy fields at Tanguro Ranch, a 200,000-acre farm where Woodwell scientists, with IPAM Amazônia, run large-scale agrocultural research projects.

Photo courtesy of Paulo Brando

Each year, more than one tenth of all human carbon emissions are a result of deforestation. The degradation of standing forests adds a poorly quantified but potentially large amount of carbon on top of that. In addition to the environmental consequences, continued deforestation and forest degradation undermine the ability of countries to meet their nationally set carbon-emissions reduction goals under the Paris Agreement.

Woodwell scientists work with a diverse set of actors in the tropics—from indigenous peoples to small landowners and multinational corporations—to help them achieve sustainability by reducing deforestation and degradation while increasing agricultural production and wellbeing.

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Above: Burning trees smolder on a cleared area of Amazon forest.

Photo courtesy of Paulo Brando

Local communities and Indigenous groups care for, and are directly responsible for, vast areas of tropical rainforests and ecologically valuable areas. In fact, Indigenous lands hold more than 25% of all carbon stored in the tropics, giving them a critical role in how climate change will unfold. Woodwell works to educate and support Indigenous communities by helping them gain legal status, while arming local communities with the knowledge to protect topical lands and fight the effects of climate change.

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Above: In 2018, Woodwell led a series of forest monitoring workshops in South America, designed to help land managers, indigenous leaders, technicians, and policymakers use the latest climate science for better decision-making.

Tropical lands are quickly approaching a tipping point and every hectare of land that we can prevent from being deforested, degraded, or disturbed matters more than ever. Woodwell is involved in a wide range of policy and governance work in the tropics—working with local partners to engage policy makers, developing relationships with indigenous peoples and large agribusiness, conducting empirical studies of land policies—to help figure out what works and how to implement those solutions on the largest possible scale.

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Above: Participants of the Amazon climate workshop held in Peru in 2018 hike through forest lands.

Photo courtesy of Alexander Nassikas
Tropical forests are wonders - some of the last remaining places that feel truly wild. They face immense risks but we still have an opportunity to save them, and doing so is critical to our collective future. Dr. Michael Coe, Tropics Program Director