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Will droughts turn the Amazon into a giant source of carbon emissions?
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Will droughts turn the Amazon into a giant source of carbon emissions?

As climate change increases temperatures and alters rainfall patterns across South America, scientists are concerned that the Amazon rainforest will shift from a carbon sponge to a carbon source.

New research published today in the journal Global Change Biology highlights this disturbing question.

NOAA scientist John Miller, working with an international team, investigated by analyzing air samples taken by aircraft over four sites in the Amazon Basin in 2010–2012. The study found strong evidence that the 2010 drought caused much of the Amazon to significantly reduce carbon uptake for up to two years.

Roughly 10 billion metric tons of carbon are emitted each year by industrial activity, with about half taken up by the oceans and forest ecosystems like the Amazon, according to data collected by NOAA’s Global Monitoring Division.  What scientists don’t know is how a changing climate will affect the Amazon.           

The new study expands on earlier work conducted by Miller and lead author Caroline Alden, currently with the University of Colorado. Their research, begun when they were both at CU’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, examined atmospheric CO2 levels across the Amazon Basin. Studies of small Amazon forest plots have found a similar response to heat and drought.                                                                                                   

If climate change causes tropical forests to stop absorbing carbon and instead give off large amounts of CO2 through decay or combustion2 it would accelerate global climate change.

“We need to know if climate change will dampen or eliminate rainforest carbon uptake,” said Miller. “Understanding how present-day climate extremes affect the rainforest will help us more accurately project future climate change.”

More information:

Video interview with NOAA's John Miller and the CIRES web story. 

Media contact: Theo Stein, public affairs for NOAA's Earth System Research Laboratory, at 303-497-6288 or


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Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR) - or "NOAA Research" - provides the research foundation for understanding the complex systems that support our planet. Working in partnership with other organizational units of the NOAA, a bureau of the Department of Commerce, NOAA Research enables better forecasts, earlier warnings for natural disasters, and a greater understanding of the Earth. Our role is to provide unbiased science to better manage the environment, nationally, and globally.


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