Sustainability Science Program


Sustainable Development of the Amazon and its Surrounding Regions: The Interplay of Changing Climate, Hydrology, and Land Use



Sustainable Development of the Amazon and its Surrounding Regions: The Interplay of Changing Climate, Hydrology, and Land Use – Impacts on Hydropower Planning and Operation and Flood Risk

Paul Moorcroft [lead] and John Briscoe (deceased)

This initiative is examining the linkages between land-use and climate change impacts on the water cycle of the Amazon and surrounding regions. Human-induced climate change arising from increasing levels of greenhouse gases is expected to push the region towards a warmer and drier state. In addition, agricultural expansion and other land use transformations are continuing in the Amazon and surrounding regions as global demand for food and biofuel increases and regional economies expand. Analyses indicate that the conversion of forest and cerrado ecosystems to pastureland and agricultural crops creates warmer and drier atmospheric conditions than the native vegetation. This study is quantifying the key sustainability thresholds for the hydrologic functioning of the Amazon basin and surrounding regions under different land transformation and climate change scenarios.  The focus is impacts on hydropower planning and operation and flood risk.

The sustainable development problem

Hydropower and agriculture are two cornerstones of Brazil’s ongoing economic expansion. This initiative examines the long-term sustainability of region’s water cycle and hydropower in the context of global climate change and agricultural expansion in the Amazon basin and surrounding areas.

Research questions

At what point does forest loss in the Amazon and surrounding areas cause declines in rainfall large enough that the changes in region’s water cycle begin to significantly impact the integrity of the remaining forest ecosystems, the region’s water cycle and its hydropower? Are these environmental responses to increasing land transformation and human-induced climate change relatively smooth or are there key thresholds beyond which abrupt changes occur?  How much will land-cover change trigger the instability of the Amazonian water cycle given climate change scenarios, and what are the implications of the projected changes in water for the hydropower policy in Brazil?

Solving a practical problem of sustainable development

Continuing expansion of agriculture and hydropower are key components of Brazil’s economic development strategy for the 21st century. This project will help determine the environmental externalities of this development trajectory arising from the feedbacks of land-use transformation onto the region’s hydrologic cycle, and how this will interact with anthropogenic climate change arising from greenhouse gas emissions.

Research strategy

We are using constrained implementation of a regional scale terrestrial biosphere model ED2 and a regional-scale coupled biosphere-atmosphere model ED2-BRAMS to explore the interactions between ecosystems, hydrology, and climate in the Amazon region. ED2 and ED2-BRAMS model are unique in their ability to realistically represent the dynamics of heterogeneous landscapes comprised of mosaics of natural ecosystems and ecosystems impacted by human activities such as agriculture and forest harvesting and land-abandonment.

In earlier work we developed constrained implementations of the ED2 terrestrial biosphere model and the regional-scale coupled biosphere-atmosphere model ED2-BRAMS for the Amazon and surrounding regions. Using the constrained ED2 model we conducted a retrospective analysis of the impacts of climate and land-use change in the Parana River Basin. Since the 1970s, river-flow in the Parana River Basin has increased despite reductions in rainfall. Our results indicate that these seemingly paradoxical observations can be explained by concomitant changes in land cover that occurred during this period. Simulations of the observed patterns of land-use change from the 1970s to the present show that land-use is the primary driver of the changes in stream-flow, and can account for both an increase in annual total stream-flow and an observed associated increase in the seasonality of stream-flow.

Building upon this retrospective analysis, we are engaged in a forward-looking case study that is examining the expected impacts of climate and land-use change on the planned hydropower developments the Tapajós River Basin. Given the anticipated land-use and climate changes in the Amazon, our ongoing effort to evaluate the impacts associated with the hydrologic changes on the Tapajós River are timely and highly relevant as the Brazilian government that is planning to build a series of new hydropower facilities in the region in the near future.

We are currently running off-line simulations of the terrestrial biosphere model under a variety of different climate and land-use scenarios. Preliminary simulations of the coupled atmosphere-biosphere model for the region show that the predicted rainfall patterns for the 2001-2009 period concur with satellite-based estimates of the region’s precipitation patterns. The above-mentioned simulations are being used to examine the sustainability of hydropower in Amazonia and the surrounding regions, and will explore the key sources of uncertainty in the predicted changes in the climate, hydrology and ecosystems of the region.

Key components of this activity are:

  • Implementation of new land-use change and climate scenarios based on the feedback from the hydropower stakeholder communities obtained during the May 2013 stakeholder workshop that was hosted by ANA (the Brazilian national water agency), and the scenarios used in the recently-released IPCC 5th assessment report. These shape the coupled model simulations.
  • Interfacing the output from the coupled biosphere-atmosphere simulation with 1) the MGB large scale hydrological model, developed by the Large Scale Hydrology research group of the Institute of Hydraulic Research at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, that has several tools to handle hydrological time series data files in typical formats used by the Brazilian National Water Agency, and 2) the Reservoir System Simulation (HEC-ResSim) software, developed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Institute for Water Resources, to assess hydropower implications of changes in precipitation and runoff. Fellow Fabio Pereira is leading this work.  He will also conduct a series of sensitivity analyses to identify the principal sources of uncertainties in predicting the future state of the region’s hydrologic cycle over the coming decades.
  • We are assessing the impacts of land use and climate change on flood risk in Sao Paulo and surrounding regions, with this work being led by SSP Fellow Fabio Farinosi.


We are engaging with the Brazilian sustainable development and hydropower communities. The original co-PI on the project, Professor John Briscoe, was the former Country Director for Brazil at the World Bank provided excellent contacts with individuals in both the agricultural and hydropower sectors.  Key participants are representatives from ANA (the Brazilian National Water Agency), and governmental and non-governmental organizations involved in sustainable environmental development issues in Brazil, in particular The Nature Conservancy (TNC) Brazil and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Brazil. Other institutions that will be engaged in the workshops include: Brazilian National Energy Planning Agency (EPE) and the Brazilian Ministry of Environment (MMA) and Ministry of Science and Technology (MST).

The work conducted under this project is being communicated to the scientific community through publications in scientific journals and presentations of results at major scientific meetings.   These include the annual American Geophysical Union (AGU), a major international forum for climate science research, and the annual ABRH (Brazilian Association of Water Resources) meeting.

Our results are being communicated the relevant practitioner communities in Brazil, drawing upon the experience and feedback from the in-country stakeholder workshop that we held in Brazilia in May 2013, from our group’s participation in the ABRH (Water Resources Brazilian Association) meeting in Bento Gonçalves, Brazil in November 2013, and the accompanying workshop organized by The Nature Conservancy (TNC), Brazil as part of their Great Rivers Partnership (GRP) that examined the issues of power generation, river transportation and deforestation / forest uses in the Tapajos region.

In December 2014 we held a stakeholder workshop on “Sustainable Development of the Amazon and its Surrounding Regions: The Interplay of Changing Climate, Hydrology, and Land Use - Impacts on Hydropower Planning and Operation” in Brasilia. The forum was hosted by ANEEL, the National Agency for Electrical Energy. Participants included members of ANEEL, ANA, the Brazilian Federal Water Agency, EPE (the Brazilian National Energy Planning Agency), MMA (the Ministry of Environment), MST (the Ministry of Science and Technology), TNC Brazil (The Nature Conservancy, Brazil), World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the World Bank. The purpose the meeting was to engage with individuals and institutions in the hydrological and planning community and in the hydropower energy production sector. We presented our preliminary results on the Tapajos river study and solicited input from the participants regarding how to further develop and refine these analyses.