Chapter 1: An idea is born

The ATTO research tower is the result of the hard work and imagination of a large number of  people, not just Brazilian and German scientists but also governmental funding agencies, students, engineers, technicians and people who worked to build the forest camp and keep it running.  This series of blogs is intended to tell the story of ATTO from a range of those peoples’ perspectives, and will continue for the next several months.  In Chapter 1 of the “ATTO through time” blog, Prof. Andreae thinks back on how the idea of a tall tower in the Amazon became a reality.

A pipe dream: a research tower in the Amazon

We are in Mainz at the end of the nineties. I was a director at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry at the time, heading the department of biogeochemistry. One afternoon, Prof. Dr. David Schimel, my friend and colleague from the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry in Jena came to visit. Sitting in my office sipping coffees we ended up discussing the importance of measuring greenhouse gases even in the center of the big continents, because some of the largest uncertainties going forward is how vegetation and soils will respond to climate change. This could best be achieved with very high research towers located in the center of the largest remaining expanses of forest in the world, specifically Siberian boreal forest and the Amazon tropical forest. But it would require large amounts of money and international cooperation with Russia and Brazil.

Within a few years, this idea became a concrete plan. In 2005 construction began on the Zotino Tall Tower Observatory, or ZOTTO for short, in Zotino in Siberia. The idea of building a similar research tower in South America, in the Southern Hemisphere and in the tropics could not be realized for the time being, as we needed to find suitable partners and a location. But surely one could learn an incredible amount with a measuring tower in the Amazon!

Several years passed without any significant progress. But then the year 2007 brought a crucial boost. The Brazilian LBA project had already built significant infrastructure by operating greenhouse gas flux towers in the INPA (Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas da Amazônia) reserve ZF2, so local partners already existed. The Max Planck Society had an outpost in Manaus for a long time, which was last managed by the Max Planck Institute for Limnology, that provided an institutional link to INPA. With the retirement of the institute’s directors, the MPI for Limnology was renamed and the operation of this station was taken over by the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry.

Researchers from my team, including Jürgen Kesselmeier, joined new members inherited from the MPI for Limnology, Florian Wittmann and Jochen Schöngart, to revitalize the dream of a research tower in the Amazon. We took up the idea and began to elaborate on it. From the very beginning, we worked together with research colleagues from INPA in Manaus. They had similar dreams and could help realize them in their country. The expertise of scientists such as Prof. Dr. Adalberto Luis Val, Prof. Dr. Antonio Ocimar Manzi and Prof. Dr. Maria Teresa Fernandez Piedade, contributed significantly to turning this figment of our imagination into a tangible project.

The “Amazonian Tall Tower Observatory (ATTO)” slowly but surely took shape – although for the time being still solely in our heads.

The ball gets rolling

Later in 2007, the German State Secretary of the BMBF Meyer-Krahmer visited Manaus to see the Max Planck INPA research station for himself after it was handed over to the MPI-C. It was a coincidence that Jürgen Kesselmeier was also in Manaus at that time, who also happened to be passionate about the idea of a tall tower in the Amazon. Together they made a trip to the K34 tower at the ZF2 station of the INPA near Manaus. There, on the top platform, Secretary Meyer-Krahmer wanted to know more about our plans and ideas.

I simply had to seize this opportunity and tell him about our desire to build an Amazonian Tall Tower Observatory.

Jürgen Kesselmeier

Meyer-Krahmer was enthusiastic about the idea of such a research tower, as was the Brazilian State Secretary Prof. Dr. Luiz Antônio Barreto de Castro (Secretário Executivo do PADCT do Ministério da Ciência, Tecnologia e Inovação do Governo Brasileiro, MCTI), with whom they and INPA partners spoke when they returned to Manaus.

Both encouraged us to write a funding application to the two ministries.

Jürgen Kesselmeier and BMBF state secretary Meyer-Krahmer on top of the K3 Tower of the INPA. © Jürgen Kesselmeier / MPI-C

Out of your head and onto paper

Many months of intensive planning ensued. Together we worked out what we would like to measure and tried to determine what would be possible. In addition to the scientific questions, we also had to deal with the technical implementation. At the same time we had to draw up a cost plan. Fortunately, we already had a reference with ZOTTO. In the meantime, the tower in Siberia had been completed and was operational.

Nevertheless, we were aware that ATTO would present us with other, very unique challenges. We would certainly have no problems with snow and permafrost in the rainforest. Above all we were worried about the heat and the permanently high humidity. How would instruments and technology cope with that? But of course we were not deterred by such “details”!

We put our heart and soul into this grant application to the BMBF. Our Brazilian partners expended equal effort to write a separate proposal to fund the Brazilian side of the project. We all spent many long days and nights brooding over budget calculations, sifting through scientific literature and searching for the best wording. The Ministries were already on our side. Under no circumstances could we waste this opportunity with an avoidable mistake.

But the hard work paid off. On 12 March 2009, 10 years after the idea first came to my mind, we held in our hands the signed letter of intent for joint support of the ATTO project.

The German Federal Ministry of Education and Research and the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation of the Federative Republic of Brazil would support the construction of a unique research observatory in the Amazon!

Representatives of the BMBF and the MCTI sign the Memorandum of Understanding for the funding of ATTO.
Representatives of the BMBF and the MCTI sign the Memorandum of Understanding for the funding of ATTO.

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  1. Pingback: Anniversary of ATTO milestones | ATTO - Amazon Tall Tower Observatory

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