Brian Dunbar Headquarters, Washington, D.C.

(Phone: 202/453-1547) Diane Stanley Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif. (Phone: 415/604-9000) RELEASE: 90-067

May 8, 1990


Cattle pastures that were once Brazilian tropical forests may be contributing to the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, NASA scientists report. A team headed by Dr. Pamela Matson of Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., sampled nitrous oxide levels in three ecosystems within Brazil's Amazon Basin: undisturbed rain forests, recently cleared and burned areas and land converted to cattle pastures. The researchers found that nitrous oxide emissions from recently cleared areas were not significantly higher than those from undisturbed rain forest. However, annual emissions from pastures were three times as high as levels obtained from representative samples of tropical forest. Nitrous oxide is a greenhouse gas, trapping heat close to the Earth's surface that would otherwise radiate into space. Various studies have shown nitrous oxide concentrations in the

atmosphere are increasing by 0.2 to 0.3 percent each year, but investigators, studying global climate, have been unable to explain the increase. "This is the first study showing the potential importance of tropical land use changes on greenhouse gases other than carbon dioxide," said Dr. Matson. "Given that tropical deforestation is occurring so rapidly, this effect could have global significance." - more -2-

Recent estimates by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences indicate approximately 15 to 20 million acres of tropical forests are cleared each year for pasture and agricultural use around the world. Another 35 million acres of regrown forest are cleared annually for slash-and-burn agriculture and for other short-term uses. Nitrous oxide is a byproduct of the alteration of nitrogen by microbes in the soil. When it reaches the upper atmosphere, nitrous oxide also contributes to the breakdown of the ozone layer. The clearing of tropical forests illustrates the complex environmental interactions related to global climate change. In addition to possibly increasing greenhouse-gas emissions, the clearing of forests removes a vast carbon "sink" by destroying large numbers of plants that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis. The burning of the trees after clearing directly releases vast quantities of carbon dioxide, another greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. The net effect of such clearing on atmospheric chemistry, however, has never been precisely quantified, and it's exact effect on global climate remains uncertain.

The findings were reported by researchers for NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.; Brazil's Institute for Research in the Amazon; and Stanford University, Palo Alto, Calif. The report was based on data gathered in the Amazon Basin in 1987 and 1988. The study's research team included Dr. Gerald Livingston from Ames, Flavio and Regina Luizao of the Brazil Institute and Dr. Peter Vitousek of Stanford. The study was supported by the Biospheric Research Program within NASA's Office of Space Science and Applications in collaboration with the Brazilian Institute for Space Research, San Jose dos Campos, Brazil. - end NASA news releases and other NASA information is available electronically on CompuServe and GEnie, the General Electric Network for Information Exchange. For information on CompuServe, call 1-800-848-8199 and ask for representative 176. For information on GEnie, call 1-800-638-9636.

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