Researchers measuring compounds high above the Amazonian canopy are exploring how the rainforest and atmosphere interact

Dr Brian Davison’s experience as a mountaineer came in useful when he was asked to install equipment on a 40 metre mast in the Amazonian rainforest near Manaus in Brazil.  Combined with his specialist training and knowledge of climbing man-made structures, Brian’s mountaineering skills make the daunting possible and safe.

“I’m used to climbing vertical rock faces so I’m the one who gets roped into these kind of things,” Dr Davison, from the Lancaster Environment Centre, said.

Dr Davison is part of a team from the Lancaster Environment Centre researching how gases emitted by trees react with gases in the atmosphere, and the impact this has on pollution and climate.

“Trees create very reactive chemicals known as volatile organic compounds,” said Professor Nick Hewitt, who is leading the £300,000 research project, funded by the Natural Environment Research Council.

“We are looking at the effect these naturally occurring compounds have on trace gases in the atmosphere.  When they are emitted, these compounds take part in chemical reactions creating ozone and the small particles that are important in air pollution.”

While ozone in the high atmosphere protects the earth from radiation, nearer the ground it causes damage to human health and reduces crop yields, and affects the climate by absorbing long-wavelength radiation. Small particles are also damaging to health and affect climate, in part  by reflecting sunlight.

“We lack a good understanding of the natural interactions that occur between the biosphere, atmospheric composition and climate. “Governments spend enormous amounts of money trying to control air quality, but we need better understanding of these natural processes first” said Professor Hewitt.

The equipment, a proton transfer reaction mass spectrometer, needs to be located above the level of the tallest trees to measure the flow of gases between the forest and the atmosphere.  It will stay in place for a year: measurements of this kind have never taken place over such a long period of time in remote rainforest before.