Public Release:  Project will create better Amazon hydrology model for climate prediction

Penn State

A Penn State-led team will develop an improved computer model of the Amazon that could ultimately help scientists better understand climate, thanks to a new grant from the Department of Energy.

The three-year, $976,000 grant is for "Scale-Aware, Improved Hydrological and Biogeochemical Simulations of the Amazon Under a Changing Climate." Chaopeng Shen, assistant professor of civil engineering, is the grant's principal investigator.

"The goal is to improve the hydrological descriptions of the Amazon," Shen said. "There's been increased attention on interactions between the water and carbon cycles."

The civil engineer explained that the Amazon is usually thought of as a massive carbon sink, absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

But, Shen said, "The Amazon forest, instead of absorbing more carbon, was shown to have turned into a carbon source during droughts."

Shen's team, which includes John Melack, professor of ecology evolution and marine biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and William Riley, a scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's Earth Sciences Division, seeks to improve existing hydrological predictions and study how small-scale processes are linked with large-scale ones.

"We have to understand the coupling of water with the rest of the environment and improve our predictive capabilities, which involves better handling of the scale issue. Accurately representing processes across a large range of scales has been a long-term challenge to the modeling community, and the ongoing work attempts to tackle this challenge with novel methods, decreasing the uncertainties in predictions," Shen stated.

The team hopes their work can be used to improve and augment existing climate simulations and create decision-making tools for future extreme weather events.

"Our modeling system is now a virtual world that seeks to mimic the tightly integrated real world by considering surface/subsurface water, energy, carbon and nitrogen cycles, ecosystems and human influences altogether," Shen said. "It bears a direct significance to the U.S. We saw in 2012 and 2013 there were severe droughts in large parts of the U.S., and devastating flooding in some areas. In order to mitigate the damage from these extreme events, we have to better understand the hydrology and how it interacts with other sub-systems. It offers us a strategic tool to assist in decision-making."

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