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Skidmore College

Faculty-student research contributes to first-of-its-kind Amazon climate study

March 16, 2021
by Angela Valden

A Skidmore faculty-student research collaboration and their work with 28 other scientists from around the globe is behind a new study that concludes for the first time that the Amazon rainforest is most likely having a net warming effect on global climate. 

“Carbon and Beyond: The Biogeochemistry of Climate in a Rapidly Changing Amazon,” published in Frontiers in Forests and Global Change, is the most comprehensive assessment to date of the myriad human and natural causes that contribute to the Amazon’s complex interactions with climate.   

“We looked at the entire environmental system of the Amazon, trying to consider more than just carbon dioxide,” said Kris Covey, lead author and visiting assistant professor of environmental studies and sciences at Skidmore College. “By evaluating the combined impact of these factors for the first time, it became clear that the Amazon is not providing the climate benefit we expect from the world’s largest rainforest.” 

Hosted by the National Geographic Society, Covey and then-environmental studies major Zoe Pagliaro ’20 gathered with 28 other researchers in Manaus, Brazil, in July 2019 to review a decade’s worth of data on the drivers of resurgent change in the Amazon, including deforestation, development, mining and fires and emissions of lesser-discussed greenhouse gases such as methane and nitrous oxide.

Amazon research summit in Manaus, Brazil

Zoe Pagliaro '20 and Kris Covey, visiting assistant professor of environmental studies and sciences, attend the convening of 30 scientists in Manaus, Brazil in July 2019.

Pagliaro, the only undergraduate student to attend the summit and co-author the paper, played a key role in the review, compiling into a single table the majority of studies that have explored forest biophysical climate feedbacks in the Amazon over the past 10 years. The table was used to seed discussions among the scientists for this first-of-its-kind assessment. 

“When it comes to climate change, there is usually a focus on the role of carbon dioxide, so it was not only fascinating but also very important to take a look at the combined effects of all the forcing agents, especially in response to land-use change and disturbance,” said Pagliaro. 

The main takeaway that the Amazon is most likely contributing to global climate change is huge, and I hope this study impacts how we think about and address climate change moving forward.” 
Zoe Pagliaro '20
co-author of "Carbon and Beyond: The Biogeochemistry of Climate in a Rapidly Changing Amazon"

Faculty-student research opportunities at Skidmore are personalized and explore original topics spanning a variety of disciplines in the sciences and liberal arts. Overall, 84% of students delve into internships or professional research opportunities while at Skidmore, and 74% pursue more than one opportunity. Of students majoring in a STEM discipline, over 90% choose to participate in credit-bearing independent study or research collaboration with faculty during their time at Skidmore.  

Each semester, dozens of students co-author research published in professional journals, and many begin graduate school with several published pieces on their resumes. These in-depth research opportunities allow for experiential learning outside the classroom and often involve travel.  

In addition to the Amazon, Pagliaro’s soil carbon and tree methane research took her to places such as Caney Fork Farms in Tennessee, Dome Island in Lake George, various farms in New York’s Hudson Valley and Oak Spring Gardens in Virginia. Since graduating, she has been serving in the “incredibly rewarding” role of sustainability coordinator for Clean Ocean Access, actively working to address some of the environmental challenges she studied at Skidmore. 

“My collaborative research experiences at Skidmore have been invaluable to my life post-graduation,” she said. “Not only did they help me land a great job right out of college working at an environmental nonprofit, but they were also an asset to my applications for graduate school, and I will be starting this upcoming fall at West Virginia University to continue my passion for research. I am so grateful for my time at Skidmore and for everyone who helped me get these amazing opportunities.”

Freddie Klaus, a fellow 2020 graduate of Skidmore’s Environmental Studies and Sciences program, took a senior-year journey to the Amazon basin in late 2019 to study tree methane alongside biogeochemist Sunitha Pangala of Lancaster University, another co-author of the new “Carbon and Beyond” study, and then joined Pangala in the United Kingdom to process the Amazon samples. The opportunity spun off from Pangala’s October 2019 visit to Skidmore, where she studied tree methane with a larger group of ESS capstone students in the College’s North Woods, an approximately 150-acre resource with its own unique and complex ecosystems. 

Phased construction of Skidmore’s new Center for Integrated Sciences, whose modern spaces support top-of-the-line instruction and interdisciplinary connections, is also expanding research opportunities at the College. The project’s North Wing opened in fall 2020 and construction of the East Wing is now underway, with final completion expected in 2024.

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