Dr Isabella Bovolo is preparing the way for a large-scale hydrology and climate monitoring programme focussing on a 1 million acre stretch of forest in Guyana known as Iwokrama, to the north of the Amazonian rainforest.
27 May 2009
Scientist on a quest to unlock the secrets of the rainforest
Dr Isabella Bovolo's explorations have taken her from the deepest, most remote parts of the Guyana rainforest, to the coast of the Caribbean and back again.
"You can't get down some of the river tributaries by boat, so you have to go by foot," Dr Bovolo says, recalling one trip earlier this month when she and colleagues from the Iwokrama International Centre (IIC) had to resort to machetes to hack their way through dense jungle.
"We were assessing where to put some of the weather stations and river monitoring equipment that we're going to be installing," she says.
For the past four months, Dr Bovolo, a hydrologist from the School of Civil Engineering and Geosciences at Newcastle University, UK, has been on the hunt for vital data that will help scientists unlock the secrets of the South American rainforest's changing climate.
Hydrology is the study of water, especially its movement, distribution, accumulation and quality in relation to the Earth's surface. It encompasses water in rivers, lakes, aquifers and glaciers.
Dr Bovolo is preparing the way for a large-scale hydrology and climate monitoring programme focussing on a 1 million acre stretch of forest known as Iwokrama, to the north of the Amazonian rainforest.
The project is set to help establish Iwokrama, home to jaguars, giant otters, black caimans and scarlet macaws among other endangered species, and the IIC - which is overseen by a board of trustees that includes both the government of Guyana and the Commonwealth Secretariat - at the forefront of climate research.
Weather stations and rain gauges
"The rainforests in general are quite poorly understood," says Dr Bovolo. "The idea is to learn more about the whole earth system and to establish a baseline for future research. In other words, we need to understand what has happened in the past in order to understand what might happen in the future."
Over the course of the past four months, Dr Bovolo has visited government institutes and university faculties, and met with private companies and voluntary organisations in the pursuit of information dating as far back as 1892 to today on rainfall, temperature, evaporation, humidity, wind and sunshine levels.
Each nugget of knowledge is gleaned from a variety of devices, such as sophisticated weather stations or modest rain gauges. "Some are very simple manual devices, like a funnel and a bottle usually in a metal casing," explains Dr Bovolo. "The water collected in the bottle should be measured at eight o'clock each morning to show how much rainfall has fallen in the past 24 hours."
"Measurements have been taken by various people – enthusiasts, volunteers and organisations. The idea is to seek the data out and collate it so that we can see what gaps there are," she says. “Once we have collated the data we can start analysing it and looking for trends - monthly, seasonal, long term or spatial."
Sleuthing in South America
Working closely with the Guyana Hydrometeorological Service (Hydromet) and its network of contacts - including around 50 other organisations such as the Caribbean Institute of Meteorology and Hydrology in Barbados and Météo France for French Guiana - Dr Bovolo and colleagues from the IIC are slowly, but surely, building up a picture of the climate of Guyana and the surrounding region.
"It's a bit like being a detective," she says, " trying to find clues about possible information sources by talking to people and then following a trail of leads.“
The task has by no means been easy and has often sprung surprises, she admits. Data is sketchy and can be hard to come by, and Dr Bovolo frequently has to contend with inaccurate or poor quality information. "There is very little climate data available for Iwokrama itself," she explains.
"In the rainforest interior some of the Amerindian communities have encouraged their school children to record weather observations on a daily basis. They only take measurements in school time and there can be issues with the quality of data, but it's better to have the data than not."
A pristine stretch of tropical forest spread over a million acres (371,000 hectares) of Guyana (about 1% of the country's forest cover), Iwokrama is a hive of biological diversity - supporting 1,125 species of plant, 420 species of fish and 127 species of mammals as well as 114 species of amphibians and reptiles.
In 1989, the President of Guyana agreed to donate the forest for a pilot project run under the auspices of the Commonwealth to study how the forest can be managed on a sustainable basis. The forest is run by the Iwokrama International Centre (IIC).
Dr Bovolo, who before working in Iwokrama deployed her skills in hydrology on alpine areas in Italy, mountain catchments in Ecuador and the arid Middle East working with Palestinians in the West Bank, has, in addition to being a detective, also had to play the role of ambassador for the IIC, working to establish trust and rapport with the individuals and organisations she has been working with.
"Successful research in this region depends on building relationships between communities and scientists at all levels - local, national, and international," she says, "which is something Iwokrama has been doing successfully for many years."
Once all available data has been collated, Dr Bovolo will produce two reports – on the availability and quality of the information and the gaps that need to be addressed by the longer-term monitoring programme and also on what can be deduced so far about the current climate in the region.
Colleagues at the IIC, Newcastle University and the Commonwealth Secretariat hope that this study will help assess the value of the "eco-system services" provided by the rainforests to the global ecological system.
"We need to find out," Dr Bovolo posits, "what the rainforests are really worth to the local and international community for example in terms of rainfall generation, climate buffering, carbon storage, flood protection, biodiversity or soil conservation and how vulnerable these rainforests are to climate change."
There is a long way to go, concludes Dr Bovolo: "This is just the start of Iwokrama’s new long term research plan. But it has the potential to yield some very important and exciting outcomes. In particular we hope to be able to show the rest of the world how tropical forests can be both conserved and sustainably used for ecological, social and economic benefits to local, national and international communities."
Isabella, take care. dad