Photograph courtesy NASA Worldview
The wonders of the Amazon rainforest include this remarkable fact: The leaves of its 400 billion or so trees release so much moisture into the atmosphere that they generate low-level clouds and their own rainfall.

The interruption of this process, called evapotranspiration, is one of the many concerns related to forest degradation, deforestation, and road building in the Amazon that threaten the region’s ecosystem.

To better understand the changes that the Amazon is undergoing, NASA awarded a grant of more than $700,000 to Stephanie Spera, assistant professor of climate change and remote sensing, for a three-year study. She will work with co-investigator David Salisbury, chair of the geography and the environment department, to use past and current satellite data to study ecosystem changes in the Amazon rainforest. They will complement the analysis with fieldwork to verify the findings.

“We want to be able to ‘look’ back in time, and we have some pretty robust satellite data that has been collected over the last 20 years,” Spera said.

The pair will also develop tools that allow researchers and planners “to analyze tradeoffs between land cover change and ecosystem services through scenarios modelling,” according to NASA’s announcement.

The project emphasizes capacity-building of local indigenous and non-indigenous groups to generate new knowledge about the Amazon and give them greater voice in policy debates about the region they call home.