NASA funds UD-led research on carbon dynamics in Mexico

October 8, 2013 under CANR News

Rodrgio Vargas works with NASA on REDD+ activitiesWorking with a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) grant, University of Delaware researcher Rodrigo Vargas is collaborating with the U.S. Forest Service and multiple institutions in Mexico to provide information to support implementation of the international program on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) by improving forest management, carbon stock enhancement and conservation.

It has been estimated that greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and forest degradation around the world may contribute up to 20 percent of global emissions. A key REDD+ goal is to make forests more valuable standing than they would be through logging by creating a financial value for carbon that is stored, or sequestered, in vegetation.

Vargas, assistant professor in the College of Agriculture and Natural ResourcesDepartment of Plant and Soil Sciences, is working as the principal investigator on the three-year project with a team that includes members from UD, the U.S. Forest Service, six different Mexican institutions and the National Forestry Commission of Mexico (CONAFOR).

The overarching goal of the project is to analyze carbon stocks and dynamics from ecosystems to the regional-scale to improve a framework for monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV) to support implementation of REDD+ in Mexican forests.

The project could lead to UD becoming a key research institution on REDD+ initiatives and an important repository of information about carbon dynamics in Mexico to be made available throughout the scientific community.

The work builds on research that Vargas started as an assistant professor at a national research center in Baja California, Mexico, where he worked with scientists to establish the Mexican network of eddy covariance sites (MexFlux). The eddy covariance technique allows measuring the exchange of mass (e.g., carbon dioxide and methane) and energy between terrestrial ecosystems and the atmosphere; in other words it is possible to measure how ecosystems “breathe”.

In that past work, Vargas was able to facilitate collaboration between a network of 11 eddy covariance sites across Mexico in different vegetation types.

“Some of them are in forests and in those specific sites, we want to create intensive monitoring sites in collaboration with the participating institutions,” said Vargas, explaining that those intensive monitoring sites would provide the research team fundamental information of how the forests are growing and breathing.

The research will consider data from NASA satellites, the MexFlux sites, as well as intensive forest inventory plots that CONAFOR has established, for information on MRV of REDD+ activities.

“REDD+ is an initiative for the reduction of emissions by deforestation and degradation and includes conservation and sustainable management of forests and the enhancement of forest carbon stocks in developing countries,” Vargas said, and the MRV models are important as they lend credibility to REDD+ activities concerning forest dynamics and carbon sequestration potential.”

Many nations would be interested in being a part of REDD+ activities so monitoring systems towards credible measurements are critical if they are going to implement the program — which is where the MRV models come in.

Providing important assistance to the project is Richard Birdsey, distinguished scientist with the U.S. Forest Service. Birdsey is a specialist in quantitative methods for large-scale forest inventories and has pioneered the development of methods to estimate national carbon budgets for forest lands from forest inventory data.

“He has led the establishment of several intensive monitoring sites in Mexico and has coordinated a USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development) program there which aims to improve monitoring of forests for REDD+ and biodiversity conservation, among other objectives,” Vargas said.

The group will be using capabilities from NASA’s carbon monitoring systems program and Vargas said the agency is very interested to test those capabilities in verifying these specific issues.

IMG_4295The research team will be using information from NASA satellites, which can provide data related to photosynthesis of forests. “Remote sensing platforms provide such information and we can validate and cross-validate those estimates from direct forest measurements and using ecosystem process based models,” Vargas said.

The team will start the research looking at a few specific sites that had already been selected by CONAFOR, and then hope to scale the research to encompass a gradient of forests across Mexico.

Vargas said that the project has a strong collaborative component with scientists across Mexican institutions. “Our collaborators know their sites and are critical partners for day-to-day activities at the study sites. In collaboration with them we will work to produce value-added products and synthesis studies about carbon dynamics across forests in Mexico,” Vargas said.

Working in Mexico provides a great opportunity to look at different types of ecosystems and gradients. Mexico is a mega-diverse country where nearly 40 percent of its territory is covered by forests. The long-term impacts of land use and anthropogenic changes have fragmented and fundamentally transformed the nation’s landscapes, creating a challenge to measure and estimate the carbon sequestration potential of these forests.

“It is a mega-diverse country and highly heterogeneous in terms of climates and ecosystems. If you go to the northern part of Mexico, there you will have arid and semi-arid ecosystems similar to the southwest of the United States — like in Arizona, Texas and southern California,” Vargas said. “But as you move south, then you have coniferous forests, tropical dry forests and tropical wet forests mixed within a matrix of agricultural and urban developments.”

Vargas said that the spatial heterogeneity proves challenging as it pushes the models and the satellite observations to the limit. “We can’t measure everywhere all the time but we can identify some ecosystems and some sites from which we can get intensive information, and from that we hope to upscale to similar sites — specifically in this case to identify potential for REDD+ activities and verify the information retrieved from satellites and predicted by models.”

Because of the wealth of information available, Vargas said the team can “ask very high level questions about carbon dynamics in Mexico. Hopefully with that information we can understand how the systems works with the goal that similar methodologies can be applied in other places. Mexico is a test bed but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be applied in other places, specifically across forest in Latin America for implementation of REDD+ initiatives.”

Article by Adam Thomas

Photos by Danielle Quigley and courtesy of Rodrigo Vargas

This article can also be viewed on UDaily.

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Rodrigo Vargas joins CANR faculty

August 29, 2013 under CANR News

Rodrigo Bargas joins CANR facultyIn October of 2012, Rodrigo Vargas joined the community of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR) as an assistant professor in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences.

Since joining UD, Vargas has successfully secured over $1 million in grants as a principal investigator supported by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the University of Delaware Research Foundation (UDRF). His research group has active study sites in Baja California, Delaware, and Maryland and collaborates with scientists across the United States, Asia, Europe and Mexico to understand how land ecosystems respond to climate variability, extreme events, and global environmental change.

Working at CANR, he has actively taken on multiple research endeavors. First, supported by a NASA grant, he is testing different approaches to improve a framework for monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV) to support implementation of Reduction of Emissions by Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+) across a gradient of forests in Mexico. This research involves collaboration with the US Forest Service, the Mexican Forest Service (CONAFOR) and multiple research institutions in Mexico.

Secondly, funded by a USDA grant, he is investigating the effect of extreme climate events on greenhouse gas fluxes in a watershed near UD’s campus by using state-of-the-art instrumentation for continuous measurements of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide fluxes from soils. This research involves collaboration with Shreeram Inamdar, associate professor in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences.

Lastly, funded by a UDRF grant, he is looking at the size, age, and use of nonstructural carbon reserves (NSC’s) in long-lived plants in the deserts of Baja California, Mexico.  His results are providing insights about the physiological mechanisms of carbohydrate allocation and long-term plant survival in water-limited ecosystems.

“Several plant species in the central desert of Baja California can live for over 400 years under limited water availability and climate variability including decadal droughts,” said Vargas.

Preliminarily results show that new fine roots of desert palms and cactus are produced using “old” NSC reserves that are more than 20 years old. Vargas’ group has also found that the age of NSC reserves inside the plants can have a mean age of over 60 years.

“This means that these plants can store NSC reserves and keep them for a long time and then use them to produce new structures such as fine roots,” said Vargas.

Vargas said he is extremely lucky to have rapidly found friends among the UD community who support him and have made him feel welcome in Newark. His time here has already afforded him the opportunity to be exposed to and apply an array of various research techniques from multiple disciplines such as computer science, micrometeorology, remote sensing, and soil ecology.

Offering a sincere thanks to all of his new friends here at the CANR, he said “I have found amazing colleagues, leaders, and students across UD, and the working atmosphere is excellent to nourish and develop high quality research.”

As an undergraduate, Vargas studied biology in Mexico at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico (UNAM), one of the largest universities in the world with over 350,000 students. It was there that he began his research career, studying nitrogen fixation of microbial mats in a tropical wetland at the Yucatan Peninsula.

He went on to earn a PhD at the University of California-Riverside where his research focused on how extreme events such as fires and hurricanes influenced carbon dynamics in regenerating forests. Through a combination of biometric forest measurements and experimental forest management techniques, he demonstrated the large capability of these forests to store carbon above and below ground.

Vargas also studied the effects of hurricane disturbance on CO2 fluxes within the soil, finding unprecedented rates of CO2 emissions from soil to atmosphere. Lastly, he demonstrated the unexpected capacity of plants to allocate old stored carbon to produce fine roots following a hurricane disturbance. In light of the east coasts’ late experience with Hurricane Sandy, Vargas’ past work shows the implications these weather phenomena’s have on the fate of stored carbon in plants.

In addition to this work, Vargas also worked on a side-project funded by the National Science Foundation studying belowground carbon dynamics in the San Jacinto Mountains of Southern California. This study allowed him to use a wireless network of soil sensors to measure CO2 fluxes and the relations with fine root dynamics.  “One of the most exciting results is that we demonstrated that fast and continuous fine root measurements (daily and sub-daily) are needed to quantify and understand belowground carbon dynamics,” said Vargas.

Following his PhD, Vargas was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California-Berkeley where he interacted with scientists around the world within FLUXNET, the international consortium of eddy covariance scientists.  “My work focused on regional and global synthesis studies on water and CO2 fluxes of terrestrial ecosystems, combining measurements and ecological process-based models,” said Vargas.

Before arriving at UD, Vargas returned to Mexico to work as an assistant research professor at a national research center in Baja California, Mexico (CICESE). Here he led synthesis studies on ocean-to-atmosphere CO2 fluxes while also continuing measurements of water and CO2 fluxes in a shrub land ecosystem in Baja California. His interest in the effects of land use change on such fluxes also led him to coordinate the consolidation of the Mexican eddy covariance network (MexFlux), where his research group is working on a first generation of nationwide synthesis studies.

Article by Angela Carcione

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