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Rainforest helps forecast climate change

Ancient pollen found in a Brazilian rainforest could enable scientists to predict the effects of global climate change.

Studies of more than 140 types of pollen from trees and herbs - preserved in lake sediment in Brazil’s Atlantic Forest - are helping scientists understand how past changes in climate have impacted on the environment.

The findings, from researchers at the Universities of Edinburgh and São Paulo, could help forecast how plants and animals will react to future environmental shifts.

Only 10 per cent of the Atlantic Forest - a region of rainforests and woodland, covering an area of around 1,300,000 km2 - remains, extending along the Atlantic coast of Brazil and into Paraguay and Argentina. Its rich biodiversity and vulnerable location make it a region of international importance.

These ancient pollen grains are allowing us to unlock the secrets of the past and could help predict how this vital region will react in the future. Our study shows how plants responded to shifts in conditions and I hope we can now make the case for these precious ecosystems to receive greater protection.

Antonio Alvaro Buso JuniorThe University of Edinburgh

Endangered environment

The existence of certain types of pollen, which can survive for thousands of years, suggests that the Linhares region of the Atlantic Forest has had increasingly wetter summers and drier winters over the past 7,000 years. This has led to changes in the types of plants found there.

Scientists say these warmer, wetter summers may have been caused by a change in the Earth’s axis of rotation, which occurs every 20,000 years, and affects the planet’s climate.

Researchers believe this led to the development of a highly localised micro-climate and so-called ancient forest refuge, providing habitat for plants and animals when parts of the Atlantic Forest were treeless.

These findings help explain the presence of many rare species in the study area and could help predict how forests may change in the future.

Researchers hope their work will highlight the need to create and protect corridors of vegetation or rivers between increasingly fragmented areas of the Atlantic Forest.

Such corridors allow plants and animals to disperse between isolated areas of the forest and help maintain biodiversity. Changes to laws that protect Brazilian forests, along with increased road building, may lead to further isolation of forest fragments and a smaller gene pool.

Latin American links

The University of Edinburgh has an established tradition of academic interaction in Latin America in a number of fields, including energy, public health, economics and the preservation of delicate ecosystems.

In March 2013, Edinburgh established a new base in São Paulo, Brazil. The Office of The Americas will help collaboration between the University and partners in education, business and government across the whole of Latin America.

In Edinburgh, the University is establishing the Centre for Contemporary Latin America Studies. It will co-ordinate and publicise the range of academic activities related to the region.

The University’s connections with Latin America are extensive and long-standing. Partnerships have been established with a range of institutions including UNAM (Mexico), Universidade de São Paulo (Brazil) and Universidad de Chile.

Edinburgh is also supporting the Brazilian government’s Science Without Borders programme, which helps students and academics from Brazil study abroad. Antonio Alvaro Buso Junior, co-author of this research into the Atlantic Forest, is a participant in the programme.