Deforestation of a Biodiverse Savanna

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WHRC researchers use a GPS receiver connected to a laptop computer to navigate through a mosaic of farmland and native Amazonian forest at Tanguro Ranch, Mato Grosso, Brazil. The software displays their data collection points on a satellite image of the region.

The Cerrado is the second largest biome of tropical South America. It is the most biodiverse savanna on Earth and contains more endemic species than the neighboring Amazon forest. Originally, the Cerrado environment covered more than 2,000,000 square kilometers in central Brazil but deforestation, which began in the early 1970s, has converted nearly 50% of this region to pasture and agriculture. Brazil is now one of the world’s largest food producers and exporters and this region produces over 60% of Brazil’s soy, 50% of its beef, corn and coffee, and 90% of its cotton.

How this deforestation affects the hydrology and ecology of the region remains understudied, but WHRC Senior Scientist Michael Coe recently received word from the Council for International Exchange of Scholars that he has been awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to spend four months in residence at the Federal University of Goiás, in Goiania, Brazil, starting about January 2014, to work with local collaborators on a project entitled “Agricultural Expansion in the Brazilian Cerrado and Consequences for the Water Cycle.”

Building upon significant existing collaborations with colleagues in Brazil, the project will examine changes in the water balance that have occurred throughout the Cerrado as a result of land cover change over the last 40 years and the scale of future changes that may occur under various governance scenarios. These findings are crucial because the large changes in the water cycle that occur with deforestation lead to significant alteration of soil moisture and stream flow and can ultimately reduce rainfall not only in the Cerrado, but also in the Amazon forest downwind.

This research will help quantify the impacts of individual landowner decisions on the hydrology of the Cerrado and develop strategies for reduction or mitigation of the impacts of future changes.