Research & Innovation

Amazon Pulse Aims to Establish a Real-time Observatory

The scientific community has long appreciated the significance of the Amazon River (river-to-shelf) system in terms of its near- and far-field physical and biogeochemical impacts, and as the only large river on earth that is still largely unspoiled by human action.

Michael Bruno, Feiler Chair Professor and Dean of the Schaefer School of Engineering and Science and Alan Blumberg, George Meade Bond Professor and Director of the Davidson Laboratory recently returned from a reconnaissance trip to the legendary river. Collaborating with some 79 international faculty and graduate students, their effort, called Amazon Pulse, not only aims to improve scientific understanding of the river, but to create management and predictive tools so that the science may be immediately and usefully applied.

“Our trip into the Amazon River was amazing,” says Blumberg. We were able to experience firsthand the vastness of the system and its energy.”

“The sun is always shining and it is always raining,” says Blumberg. “In a sense it is an accelerated natural laboratory because there is so much energy concentrated in one system,” he explains.  

Part of a team of US and Brazilian scientists that spent five days trooping through mudflats, tidal mangroves and the coastal ocean, Blumberg and Bruno studied the interaction of the sediments with the water dynamics.

According to Blumberg, the Amazon is a unique natural laboratory for studying the physics and sediment dynamics of a riverine system. It has much fresh water discharge (20% of the global discharge), huge tidal ranges (3 to 4 m) and tremendous loads of fine grain sediments (10% of the world’s fluvial sediment supply).  

“We cleaned the mud off our clothes by jumping into the river only to find that our clothes became laden with fine grain sediments that were even harder to get out,” explains Blumberg. “No snakes or piranhas, thankfully, but mosquitos were always around.”

To achieve their goal, Amazon Pulse will establish a real-time observatory as well as perform a series of fundamental science projects around the observatory effort.  The international collaboration will matrix the research and observatory activities in field science, modeling, and remote sensing with foci by location, to include the tidal river, the coastal zone/inner shelf, and the outer shelf.

“Most of what we know about the Amazon is from a joint US/Brazilian study that was done 20 years ago—so questions are being asked about what impact, if any, climate change, is having on the Amazon,” says Bruno. “The answer is that we don’t know; we don’t even have a baseline.” 

Additionally, enhanced understanding of the Amazon River-to-Coast Region will support local efforts to manage and preserve this vital natural resource for future generations, and will provide the present-day baseline information necessary to understand—and predict—future changes under different climate change and human activity scenarios.

“There is so much that we still do not understand about the Amazon, the dominant river system on the planet, and its influence on local, regional and global dynamics,” says Bruno.  

To that end, the researchers’ long-term goal is to design and construct an integrated and sustained observation and forecasting system for the Amazon River to Coast Region.

“Our initiative will establish a real-time observatory and prediction system much like the Stevens’ New York Harbor Observing and Prediction System (NYHOPS) that forecasts ocean currents for drift simulations in support of pollutant tracking and search and rescue planning,” says Bruno.

Researchers will be able to monitor the pulse of the river seeing changes due to climate variability and human activities in the watershed as they occur.

Funded, in part, by a National Science Foundation grant through the Pan American Advanced Studies Institute (PASI) titled “Toward a Sustained Operational River-to-Shelf Observation & Prediction System for the Amazon,” the trip was an extension of a workshop held last summer that helped inform U.S. participants of the unique physical oceanographic, hydrodynamic, sediment transport, and coastal sedimentation that affect the ecosystems characteristics of the Amazon fluvial-coast-shelf region. The workshop also facilitated the formation of working relationships between the region’s scientists and engineers and their U.S. counterparts, as well as among scientists working in various disciplines.

“Our trip was as much about establishing trusted scientific and personal relationships as it was about the science,” says Blumberg.