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FAPESP program announces winning projects in its first call for proposals

NASAThe program tries to establish a bridge between social and natural sciences.NASA

Launched in August 2008, the FAPESP Program for Research into Global Climate Change announced the results of its first call for projects in May. Ten proposals were selected, involving themes that concern the human aspects of climate change, its effects on natural systems and applied studies, especially in the agricultural field. “It’s an excellent portfolio of projects that represents, in a balanced manner,  several lines of research that we want to pursue,” says meteorologist Carlos Nobre, program coordinator and a researcher at Inpe, the National Space Research Institute. The program, which will last for ten years, is the greatest and most articulated multidisciplinary effort ever conducted in Brazil to expand knowledge about global climate change. R$100 million (about R$10 million are year) are to be invested over the next ten years, linking basic and applied research into the causes of global warming and its impact on people’s lives. The idea is to release one or two calls for proposals every year, until a “menu” of 40 to 50 projects has been assembled over the next five years. “Certain themes that may not appear in the first call, such as impact on our oceans, which will certainly appear in subsequent calls. It would be impossible to cover all the themes in the very first set of projects,” explains Nobre. The program, which is clearly inter-disciplinary, aims at establishing bridges between the social and the natural sciences, both of which are essential for an understanding of the subject.

The funds for the winning proposals will come from a partnership agreement between FAPESP and the Ministry of Science and Technology, through the National Scientific and Technological Council (CNPq). Part of the projects focus on understanding the effects of climate change on natural systems, such as rainfall, the distribution of aerosols, or the carbon cycle of rivers. Reynaldo Luiz Victória, from CEna, the Center of Nuclear Energy in Agriculture at the Luiz de Queiroz campus of the University of São Paulo in Piracicaba, leads a group of researchers that are to analyze the role of rivers in regional carbon cycles. This project will interface with another one, coordinated by Humberto Ribeiro da Rocha, a professor at USP’s Institute of Astronomy, Geophysics and Atmosphere Sciences, which will focus on quantifying the carbon and water cycles in three biomes, the Amazon Forest, the Cerrado savanna and the Mata Atlantica Forest, and in two agro-ecosystems, sugarcane and eucalyptus plantations. “In preceding projects in the Amazon region we took measurements in experimental sites, in a local way. Now we want to do this on a wider scale, all over the basin,” says Rocha. “We must analyze the carbon that goes in, the carbon that comes out and the carbon that stays in the Amazon region, through a number of approaches, such as measuring the concentration of greenhouse gases with sensors from aircraft, in river areas, and on solid ground, using a combination of calibrated models to assimilate the field data,” he states. Another focus is on an intermediate scale, involving the study of the hydrological regimes of several basins, in order to investigate how the use of the soil, including the type of vegetation and husbandry can improve the supply of water and its quality. The aim is to discern how the likely effects of global warming and of changes in the use of the earth can interfere with the lack of water, regarding both its catchment and the moistness of the soil for agricultural crops.

Paulo Artaxo, a professor at USP’s Physics Institute, plans to intensify a line of research to which he has been dedicating himself for quite a while: the effects on the regional climate of the aerosol particles released in Brazil. Aerosols can be naturally formed by forests or generated and released by human action, such as burning fossil fuels or deforestation, and they affect the climate through phenomena such as cloud formation. The project will focus on the Amazon and the Pantanal regions. “We will study the physical and chemical properties of the particles and their effect on the balance of atmospheric radiation, their effect on cloud formation and development mechanisms, and their impact on the hydrological cycle,” says Artaxo. According to him, the data will be assessed over two years through sampling stations: one close to Manaus, another one near Alta Floresta and Sinop, which are  frontiers of deforestation, and a third one in the Pantanal region. “We’ll measure in unprecedented detail the optical and radioactive properties of the aerosol particles and their effect on cloud formation,” states the researcher. The study will include a remote sensing component, with satellite analysis of the particle distribution in Brazil, and will try to develop advanced models that should take into account the effect of these particles on the country’s climate change. “We will also conduct experiments with a Bandeirantes plane belonging to Inpe in the Amazon and Pantanal regions, in order to measure the impact of these particles on cloud properties,” add Artaxo. The project continues the work of the Millennium Institute in the Amazon region, which was coordinated by Artaxo, and of modeling developed by Inpe in the last ten years. “We hope to contribute to the construction of a new Brazilian climate model, by improving understanding of the particle component of aerosols on climate,” he states. The project involves researchers from several USP groups, from Inpe, from Inpa (the National Institute of Research of the Amazon Region) and from the Federal University of Mato Grosso do Sul (UFMS).

Carlos Arturo Navas, a professor at USP’s Biosciences Institute, is to coordinate a project to identify the extent that the capacity for physiological adjustments in wild fauna can be compatible with a regime of rainfall and temperature affected by climate change, particularly from the standpoint of extreme events. Navas has been investigating, for quite a while, the plasticity of fauna physiology, i.e., its capacity to adjust and adapt in accordance with environmental gradients, in order to understand, for instance, how typical people from the foot of a mountain can give rise to people at a higher altitude. Last year, he completed a Thematic Project on the subject. “About four years ago I woke up to the fact that this research knowhow could also be useful in connection with climate change. And I also realized that I was not alone, because there are researchers from the United States and Europe who are poring over the same challenge. Physiology has developed tools that have a lot to add to research into conservation and climate change,” states Navas. “Our objective is to study animal physiology within the context of climate extremes, of temperature, for example, in order to understand and even forecast how animal populations might respond to these climate changes.”

Some of the winning projects from the first call are more in the nature of applied research, trying to understand how biological systems in areas planted with things such as sugarcane, soybeans and eucalyptus interfere in the patterns of carbon dioxide emissions. Siu Mui Tsai, a Cena-USP researcher, is responsible for a project that monitors the diversity and the functional activities of microorganisms under the impact of deforestation and changes in the use of  soil in soybean and sugarcane plantations. The impact upon the atmosphere of the Southeast of Brazil due to the release of particulate material (very fine particles of solids and liquids suspended in the air) will be addressed by the project of researcher Arnaldo Alves Cardoso, a professor at Unesp’s Araraquara Chemistry Institute. “Our region suffers due to the severe impact from the burning of sugarcane, but we lack studies mapping the release of particulate material into the atmosphere from different sources, such as cities, industries and other stages of the agroindustrial process, and about the possible consequences of this for the environment,” says Cardoso. “We will analyze how organic and inorganic compounds are incorporated into the particulate material, how this affects its properties to act as a cloud nucleator and how this particulate material in the atmosphere interferes with the natural rainfall regime and the formation of electrical discharges in the atmosphere. We want to learn how the agroindustry changes, not only in terms of the types of crop but also in terms of how they are cultivated, and how the rising mechanization of sugarcane harvesting will affect the quality and amount of particulate material in the atmosphere over the next few years. We also want to foresee what the possible effects are on climate change, in particular regarding the hydrological cycle,” states Cardoso.

The group of Newton La Scala Júnior, a professor at Unesp’s Jaboticabal School of Agrarian and Veterinarian Sciences, is to analyze the impact of agricultural husbandry practices upon the emissions of CO2 that come from the soil in sugarcane production areas in inner-state São Paulo. “There are different aspects concerning soil emissions of CO2, especially in agricultural systems. This emission varies over time and space and is affected by husbandry practices, especially by the preparation of the soil. Our aim is to map the role of this CO2 in the greenhouse effect,” states La Scale. The project follows several others that his group conducted in the last ten years. The group plans to analyze soil used in farming during the time when it lacked vegetation cover. During this time, the soil releases CO2, because there is no vegetation and, hence, no photosynthesis. “The objective is to further our understanding of this issue. Several husbandry systems interfere with carbon loss and we will characterize these emissions better. We also want to generate models that will better describe the variability of the emissions,” he stated.

The invitation extended to researcher to study the human aspects of climate change yielded good results. Three of the winning projects fit into this profile. One of them, led by Daniel Hogan, a professor of demography at Unicamp, is to map the vulnerability of the towns on the northern coast of São Paulo and to suggest public policies that can be further adapted to the effects of climate change. “Most of the studies involving a social perspective of climate changes emphasize problems in the Amazon region, but the urban population is the group that will be affected the most by extreme climate events,” says Hogan. “We decided to concentrate on medium size towns on the São Paulo coast because they are less prepared to face the problem than the large cities,” he states. They are likely to be the first ones to suffer from extreme events – the case of the hurricane Catarina, which hit the coast of the state of Santa Catarina in 2004, is an example of what may happen. Hogan reminds us that the rise in the sea level, considered inevitable, will have longer-term effects. “The chief issue will probably be heavier rainfall and more intense heat. These towns have a precarious structure. Should rainfall become concentrated in a shorter time span, the drainage problems and the destabilizing of the hillsides may become dramatic,” he says.

One of the project’s objectives is to identify and qualify the most vulnerable groups and help to formulate public policies, a task that, according to him, is still in its infancy in the case of climate change. Towns such as Caraguatatuba, one of the project’s main targets, are experiencing what might be the eve of a major demographic increase, driven by the oil and gas prospecting that is going on in the Santos basin. As it is set into a narrow strip of land between a mountain range and the sea, any population and economic growth must be considered with care,” he says. Besides the human aspects, the project will also study the environmental changes that this population surge may cause, such as the effect, for instance, on the composition of the region’s flora, along with researchers from Unicamp’s Biology Institute. “But it isn’t with just four or five projects that we’ll take care of all the research needed in this field. The main goal is to create a research tradition that can make subsequent interdisciplinary studies feasible,” says the professor.

Professor Ricardo Abramovay, from USP’s School of Economics, Business Administration and Accounting (FEA-USP) is coordinating a project to assess the socioeconomic impact of climate change, also with the aim of aiding the formulation of public policies. The initiative will comprise several fronts. One is to look for tools that can help to improve forecasting capabilities regarding the social and economic effects of climate change. “The current models are precarious, especially when it comes to their capacity to make all the elements involved interact,” says Abramovay. Another focus will be an analysis of the private sector’s willingness to respond to climate changes. “Many companies have voiced the intention of reducing carbon emissions from their production processes. We want to find out whether these intentions are real and what their consequences are,” states the researcher. Another research front concerns the analysis of the negotiation processes that may lead to the establishment of carbon credit trading markets, which are very unstable at present. “We will also study decisive issues, such as sustainable consumption. The idea is to map out how the production and consumption model of the contemporary world will be affected by climate change,” he states.

Finally, a project led by Inpe’s general director, Gilberto Câmara, will try to identify the institutional players that are related to Amazon region deforestation and to study their behavior, in order to build public policy impact scenarios. “We have called the organized groups within society that influence the occupation and use of land in the Amazon region “institutional players”. Preliminarily, these players include groups such as the owners of large plantations of soybean and of other commodity items, the ranchers, the small farmers, the predatory woodcutters, the woodcutters that comply with standards of husbandry, lumber industry workers, environmentalists, scientists and landless settlers,” says Câmara. “Each of these players tries to influence the federal, state and municipal governments to benefit them by adopting policies that are in their interest.” The project’s hypothesis is that all of these are represented in the political struggle. Thus, the development of laws that determine the use of the soil in the Amazon region and compliance with them depend on the relative power of each group of institutional players. “The amendment to the Forestry Code in 1993, which changed the environmental protection area from 50% to 80% in private properties in the Amazon region, was a win for the environmentalists, caused by the rate of deforestation having reached 29 thousand square kilometers that year. However, the ruralists, who are highly organized, politically speaking, prevented the law from being applied,” says Câmara. According to him, the large annual fluctuation in deforestation rates is not properly explained by statistical models, which try to correlate the prices of merchandise to the deforested areas. “These models tell us what happened, but they are fragile in terms of building future scenarios. Through this project, we are trying to acquire a socio-anthropological understanding of the institutional players in the Amazon region and to develop models that make use of this knowledge to build a realistic picture for the region.”

The FAPESP program’s second call for proposals is currently in the evaluation stage. This call is geared toward Global Climate Changes and focuses on creating the first Brazilian climate model, a software program that should perform sophisticated simulations of climate phenomena. The results are due to be released at the beginning of the second half of the year. The program’s executive office, housed in Inpe in São José dos Campos, will also house a database with the scientific results of the program, with the mission of disseminating the knowledge generated and  helping to formulate public policies.