"The greenness levels of Amazonian vegetation, a measure of its health, decreased dramatically over an area more than three and one-half times the size of Texas," said Liang Xu, the study's lead author.
"It did not recover to normal levels, even after the drought ended in late October 2010," said Xu, who is with Boston University's Climate and Vegetation Research Group in the Department of Geography and Environment.
The comprehensive study was prepared by an international team of scientists using more than a decade's worth of satellite data from NASA's Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer, MODIS, and Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission.
Map of normalized difference vegetation index for the 2010 drought in the Amazon Basin (Map courtesy Boston University)
Analysis of these data produced detailed maps of vegetation greenness declines from the 2010 drought. The study has been accepted for publication in "Geophysical Research Letters," a journal of the American Geophysical Union.
"Last year was the driest year on record based on 109 years of Rio Negro water level data at the Manaus harbor," said Marcos Costa, co-author from the Federal University in Vicosa, Brazil. "For comparison, the lowest level during the so-called once-in-a-century drought in 2005 was only eighth lowest."
The severity of the 2010 drought was seen in records of water levels in rivers across the Amazon Basin, including the Rio Negro which represents rainfall levels over the entire western Amazon.
Water levels started to fall in August 2010, reaching record low levels in late October and began to rise with the arrival of the winter rains.
As anecdotal reports of a severe drought began to appear last summer, the authors started near-real time processing of massive amounts of satellite data.
They used a new capability, the NASA Earth Exchange, NEX, a collaborative supercomputing environment that brings together data, models and computing resources. NEX was built for the NASA Advanced Supercomputer facility at the agency's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California.
With NEX, the study's authors obtained a large-scale view of the impact of the drought on the Amazon forests and were able to complete the analysis by January 2011, in record time.
Similar reports about the impact of the 2005 drought were published about two years after the fact. They concluded that Amazon forests did not green up during the 2005 drought.
Aerial view of the Amazon region impacted by drought, June 24, 2010 (Photo courtesy Greenpeace)
"Timely monitoring of our planet's vegetation with satellites is critical, and with NEX it can be done efficiently to deliver near-real time information, as this study demonstrates," said study co-author Ramakrishna Nemani, a research scientist at Ames.
An article about the NEX project appears in this week's issue of "Eos," the weekly newspaper of the American Geophysical Union.
Using NEX, the researchers first developed maps of drought-affected areas using thresholds of below-average rainfall as a guide.
Then they identified affected vegetation using two different greenness indexes - one for green leaf area and the other for physiological functioning.
The maps show the 2010 drought reduced the greenness of some 965,000 square miles of vegetation in the Amazon - more than four times the area affected by the last severe drought in 2005.
"The MODIS vegetation greenness data suggest a more widespread, severe and long-lasting impact to Amazonian vegetation than what can be inferred based solely on rainfall data," said Arindam Samanta, a co-lead author from Atmospheric and Environmental Research Inc. in Lexington, Massachusetts.
There is concern that in a warming climate the moisture stress could result in Amazon rainforests being replaced by grassy savannas.
In that case, the large reserves of carbon stored in these forests, about 100 billion tons, could be released to the atmosphere, which would accelerate global warming.
The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned droughts similar to the one last year and another in 2005 could be more frequent in the Amazon region in the future.
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