Testing novel isotope approaches to reconstruct past precipitation regimes in the Amazon

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leeds
Department Name: Sch of Geography


The South American summer monsoon brings vast amounts of precipitation to the Amazon basin, providing an important lifeline to its forest and livelihoods. It remains uncertain however how climate change and increasing CO2 levels will affect Amazonian precipitation and forests. As climate models vary widely in their predictions and as our understanding of Amazon climate responses is still limited, significant insight in the Amazon hydrological cycle can be gained from reconstructions of climate responses in the past. One approach to achieve this is by using stable isotopes in precipitation. Naturally water contains different abundances of light and heavy isotopes. As water moves through the hydrological cycle the heavy isotope is preferentially rained out. Isotope ratios in precipitation are therefore a useful recorder of the amount of rainfall. Various natural archives of isotopes in precipitation, like tree rings and speleothems (cave carbonate formations), have been used to reconstruct past climate, but each of these methodologies have their shortcomings. Tree rings are of high time resolution but cover short periods and are affected also by plant physiological processes. In contrast, speleothems cover thousands of years but time resolution is poor. Thus, combining speleothem records and tree ring records permits more faithful reconstructions of precipitation and provides also information about tree responses to changes in CO2.
In this proposal, we will build a new partnership between UK and Brazilian scientists working on two important natural proxies: isotopes in tree rings and speleothems to pursue the following primary aims
i) to test new - but not yet proven - methods to separate isotope variation in tree rings due to leaf evaporation from the precipitation isotope signal
ii) to organise a workshop to assemble a network of scientists working on paleoclimate in the Amazon and adjacent regions, with the aim to improve and spatially integrate Amazon climate reconstructions. The ultimate aim is to gain a better understanding of past and possibly future variation in Amazon precipitation associated with monsoon regime over South America.
We will proceed as follows. We first use new tree ring records to measure isotope ratios at specific positions within the cellulose molecule, and, in parallel, in specific wood constituents (e.g., lignin). We then compare these signals with water isotope records of the actual rainfall from the study site covering past seven to eight years to determine what positions or which constituents most accurately record rainfall signals versus leaf evaporation signals. This work will profit from unique precipitation isotope records (at two sites) and high-resolution speleothem records (at one site) which have been and are still being collected by the participating labs over the last years. The work will also include new tree ring data collections and real-time monitoring of tree water use and growth dynamics. The proposed analytical procedures are highly advanced and will benefit from unique specific facilities of the UK isotope labs to measure compound specific mass spectrometry and the use Nuclear Magnetic Resonance spectrometry.
The assembled team makes maximum use of the synergies between the groups' expertise and facilities. The UK team has worked for several years on isotopes in tree rings proving these methods can be used to reconstruct Amazon precipitation, while the Brazilian team has successfully used speleothems to reconstruct South American climate over long time scales (past thousands of years).
The proposed pilot project will open the possibility to reconstruct more faithfully past precipitation patterns of the Amazon but also to reconstruct the history of leaf enrichment in trees and thus tree responses to a high CO2 world. These are ideal topics for future collaboration.

Planned Impact

The South American summer monsoon brings vital rainfall to the Amazon, the largest watershed on earth and largest continuous rainforest. This rainfall sustains large agricultural areas south of the Amazon and supports the livelihood of human populations. The information that we ultimately aim to generate is thus primarily of interest to those living in and of the Amazon. For example, over the last decade various large rivers have seen increasingly high river levels, resulting in flooding of major towns and villages impacting on people living there. The agricultural industry in Brazil, especially the soy producing areas south of the basin, depends on the recurrence of annual rains and insight into future changes in this region are thus very important for this industry. In addition, greater insights in future Amazonian climate is important for eg. those trying to conserve the Amazon rainforest and protect its biodiversity. Greater insight into possible future climate change will help developing strategies to anticipate its impacts.

Our specific engagement activities in this project will include conventional pathway of publication in high impact journals, communication with general public by press releases, and the organisation of an international workshop. This international workshop which will be used for networking and communication science among experts in the field but will also carry an educational component geared towards training the next generation of South American scientists. The workshop will be used as a special platform to engage with the national media in Brazil and abroad.


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Title Installation of Sapflow meters on trees in Brazil in Peruacu National Park 
Description As part of this grant we build sap flow meters, at the sChool of Geography, university of Leeds and installed these on 3 trees in Peruacu national Park along with a solar panel operated battery system to continuously monitor climate and tree sapflow responses to climate in this site. The design and construction of the sap flow meter was entirely done at our lab using Arduino technology. 
Type Of Material Improvements to research infrastructure 
Year Produced 2018 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact NO impact yet. 
Description Partnership with School of chemistry, University of Leeds 
Organisation University of Leeds
Department School of Chemistry Leeds
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We started partnership with Prof. Bruce Turnbull of the School of Chemistry, University of Leeds , to develop novel approaches to analyse isotopes in organic material at specific positions within the glucose molecule.
Collaborator Contribution Prof. Turnbull and his postdoc and MSc student have designed and tested the novel methods and we are now at the stage to prove that these work for organic materials.
Impact New chemical reaction methods to remove oxygen atoms from sugars. After testing the method we will publish it.
Start Year 2019
Description Keynote talk during TRACE meeting (Tree-rings in Archaeology, Climatology and Ecology, 2019) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact I gave keynote talk to large audience at the TRACE 2019 meeting, on Tree-rings in Archaeology, Climatology and Ecology.
Title of talk : Tree ring in the tropics
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL http://pastglobalchanges.org/calendar/2019/127-pages/1906-trace19
Description Participation in international meeting/worksop in Sao Paulo - Paleoclimate in South America 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Patients, carers and/or patient groups
Results and Impact The activity consisted of the PIRE-CREATE Annual Meeting, conjointly functioning as project meeting for the NERC -FAPESP funded ISOAM project, and an associated field trip to the Peruaçu Caves National Park. The Meeting took place at the University of Sao Paulo (https://www5.usp.br/), and was be preceded by a field trip to cave sites in Peruaçu Caves National Park in the State of Minas Gerais (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cavernas_do_Perua%C3%A7u_National_Park).

The Meeting focused on paleoclimate reconstruction in South America and included participants and researchers from USA, Brazil, UK, Argentina, Mexico, Peru. It was attended by a total of ca. 30 international researchers, 15 postdoctoral students, 15 graduate students and many undergraduate students.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.pirecreate.com/gallery-annual-meeting-2019