Atto – Bridging the Rainforest with the Atmosphere

  • Helmut Reuter
  • India
  • Oct 17, 2014



The view straight down from the Amazonian Tall Tower Observatory, a steel mast rising 325 metres above the Brazilian rainforest, is likely to make most feel giddy. Taller than the Eiffel Tower, the mast, to be known by the acronym Atto, will be festooned with sensors, probes and pumps. Construction of the mast, from modular steel parts, has recently begun. The mission will be to discover everything possible about climate change, from a location that would interface the amazing Amazon Rainforest with the Earth’s atmosphere.
”It would help us understand  the impact of the atmosphere on the rain forest, as well as that of the rainforest  on the atmosphere,” says Florian Wittmann, a geographer working for Germany’s Max Planck Institute.

The scientists face an arduous journey for the installation of the scientific devices: first travelling 100km northwards, via NH 174,  from the jungle metropolis of Manaus, then eastwards to the huge Balbina hydroelectric dam, then traversing 30km of dirt road along the Rio Uatama, followed by a boat trip and finally travelling 13 km along a jungle track. ”There’s nothing here apart from forest,” says Wittmann – though that has been changing lately. After years of preparation, the tower is now expected to be completed by November. The Max Planck Institute and the Brazilian Amazon Research Institute (Inpa) are collaborating on the project. ”This location, in the Brazilian Amazon, is of the greatest scientific interest, as the Amazon Rainforest remains the largest contiguous rainforest on earth,” says Juergen Kesselmeier, the Head of the German team in the Atto project.

The vast basin’s function as a carbon sink, converting carbon dioxide to oxygen and catalyzing vegetation through photosynthesis, is essential for life on earth, even though the Rainforest has shrunk considerably. The Amazon ecosystem also protects the earth from the impact of much direct sunshine. Up to half of the rain that falls here is returned to the atmospheric water cycle, through evaporation from the leaves. A smaller tower, 80m high, code-named Claire, was erected at the site in 2011, to collect preliminary Amazon data. Atto will draw in air at much higher levels, measuring many more particulates and droplets. It will also investigate how air masses are transported over hundreds of kilometres.
The scientists further aim to gain information on where and why greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, as well as other reactive trace gases, are formed and collected. ”The height of Atto will allow us to have a huge area of impact, measuring thousands of square kilometres.  We will soon have more precise information of this entire area,” says Wittmann.

The logistical hurdles have been considerable, with steel sections being hauled over land and river to the site, 160 kilometres north-east of Manaus in the Reserva do Uatuma conservation area.
The total cost has been budgeted at 8.4 million euros (10.7 million dollars), and has been equally shared between Brazil and Germany. The site has been carefully chosen. It had to avoid any interference from the emissions caused by Manaus, with its population of some 2 million. For the same reason, the diesel generators that provide Atto with its energy have been erected several kilometres away. The data from the Amazon tower would also be compared with its twin, Zotino Tall Tower Observation (or Zotto), in central Siberia, which has been in operation since 2006. The November opening of Atto would be most timely, and watched very keenly across the globe. In December, a 12-day UN Climate Conference is scheduled to take place in the Peruvian capital of Lima, to prepare the ground for the 2015 Climate Summit in Paris.


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