So the scientists, like the trees, are racing against time. Because rainfall, geology and topography in the western Amazon have given rise to a mosaic of ecosystems so diverse that they are virtually unknown, scientists have little data on which to base conservation plans, Asner says.
Whereas Feeley tracks changes on the ground, Asner flies over the forest in a plane equipped with a laser-imaging system and a supercooled spectrometer that can detect 21 chemicals in the leaves of canopy trees. After a decade of comparing spectrometry data with the chemistry of leaves lopped from treetops, Asner says he can identify chemical “fingerprints” of species with 80 percent accuracy—enough to create a diversity map of canopy species in the western Amazon, from Colombia to Bolivia, that will give scientists a base line against which to compare future changes. He is also measuring forest carbon, which will aid in calculating greenhouse gases released by deforestation.
As some species thrive and others fail to adapt, climate change will produce “winners and losers,” says Asner, who presented his preliminary findings on the drought damage on December 7 at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco.
He foresees “major shifts in the basic configuration of the Amazon” in a fairly short time. “I’m 44,” he says. “If I am lucky enough to live to be 80, I will see all of it.”