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As the world grapples with a new pandemic and a flurry of fires and storms exacerbating concerns over the climate crisis, a scientific milestone has been achieved in the heart of the world’s second largest tropical forest.

The Congo Basin’s first eddy-flux tower now rises above the canopy in the Yangambi Biosphere Reserve, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The 55-meter tall structure measures the exchange of greenhouse gases between the atmosphere and the forest ecosystem and will make it possible to contribute to accurately calculate the basin’s carbon sink potential, considered by scientists as a crucial nature-based solution against global warming.

“The CongoFlux tower is essential to understand how much carbon the lowland forests in the Congo Basin are capturing and how they are being impacted by the rise in temperatures, droughts and atmospheric pollution from biomass burning,” said professor Pascal Boeckx from Belgium’s Ghent University (UGent), who has been collecting data in the area since 2010.

The researcher and his team will operate the measuring equipment on the eddy-flux tower as part of a project funded by both Belgium and the European Union, and jointly implemented by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), UGent, the enterprise Resources and Synergies Development, the Kinshasa-based school of forestry, known by its acronym ERAIFT, and the Congolese Institute for Agronomic Research (INERA).

   The CongoFlux tower is located in the DRC’s Yangambi Biosphere Reserve, Democratic Republic of Congo, designated by UNESCO, the U.N. cultural agency, in 1977. CIFOR/Fiston Wasanga

SOUND DATA, BETTER POLICIES

The tower is part of a broader effort to consolidate Yangambi as a hub for the study of biodiversity and climate change in the Congo Basin – knowledge that is ultimately meant to inform better policies in the region and globally.

“The forests in the Amazon and the Congo basins are very different in terms of structure, tree species and environmental impacts; it is essential to have accurate, in situ data instead of solely relying on model predictions,” Boeckx said.

Although over 600 eddy-flux towers have been installed in ecosystems around the world over the past years, this is the first one in the Congo Basin. Until now, there was no reliable data on the exchange of greenhouse gases between the atmosphere and the largest tropical forest in central Africa or the impact global change is having on its functioning and growth.

   Technical equipment will measure the exchange of greenhouse gases – carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, methane – between the forest and the atmosphere and high-quality meteorological data. Yangambi, Democratic Republic of Congo. UGent/Thomas Sibret
   Pascal Boeckx and his team at the CongoFlux tower, Yangambi, Democratic Republic of Congo. UGent/Thomas Sibret

The data generated by CongoFlux will be open access for researchers all over the world. Data on evaporation and the exchange of greenhouse gases – carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, methane – between the trees and the atmosphere will allow scientists to calculate the contribution of the forest to climate change mitigation and to better understand precipitation patterns in Africa.

“We know that tropical forests are a huge reservoir of carbon but, at the moment, nobody really knows how much carbon dioxide the Congo Basin forest absorbs on an annual basis,” Boeckx said. “The first eddy-flux tower of the region is a crucial tool for researchers and, down the line, for evidence-based policies in the basin and beyond.”

   The CongoFlux tower was built by local workforce in Yangambi, Democratic Republic of Congo. CIFOR/Fiston Wasanga
   Emmanuel Bulonza installs the technical equipment of the CongoFlux tower. CIFOR/Fiston Wasanga

Rising above the tree-line in the vast forest, the tower also stands as testament to the commitment of the local community – those who built and will help maintain the imposing, but benign structure, and in whose hands rests much of the future of the landscape.

Standing in a patch of sunlight, Emmanuel Muhigwa Bulonza, he lead Congolese Ph.D. student in charge of operating the equipment on a daily basis, looks up at the gigantic tower: “I’m proud to be part of an initiative that will help better understand, conserve and sustainably use our precious forests,” he said. “Hopefully, it will also lead decision-makers to appreciate and protect the importance of this tropical forest to our livelihoods, our region and the world.”

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This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry, which is supported by CGIAR Fund Donors.
This research was supported by Kingdom of Belgium through delegated cooperation with the European Union.
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