Capturing atmospheric data in the Amazon

To get to the top of the 1,066-foot Amazon Tall Tower Observatory, or ATTO, you’d better be in shape. The only way up is a zigzagging, open-air staircase, with nothing but a harness for protection. That’s because ATTO isn’t built for casual visitors. Poking up from the Amazon jungle like a giant needle, it’s designed to capture vast amounts of atmospheric data—data that could unlock new insight into climate change.

Illustration by Richard Bornemann

The tower is a cable-supported steel structure taller than the Eiffel Tower.

Sampling arms protrude from the tower at six different heights; the air samples they gather are analyzed by equipment at the base every 15 minutes.

More than 30 devices on the tower continuously collect a variety of atmospheric data—from wind speed and direction to water vapor concentration to radiation levels.

Pipe Dream
Pipes in the tower carry air samples to several laboratories at the base. Because ATTO can collect those samples at multiple heights, researchers can use them to create “vertical profiles,” which show how much a particular substance or weather condition varies at different altitudes.

Triple Threat
ATTO consists of not one but three towers—the tallest, still under construction, and two 260-foot towers that are already operating. While the tall tower will be able to gather data from a massive region, its shorter counterparts are better for monitoring subtler interactions between the forest and atmosphere.

30 Years
Minimum length of time ATTO will operate. (Its creators hope it will run much longer.)

The Big Picture
It’s tricky to monitor CO2 activity over land because the physical and biological features absorbing and expelling that carbon—plants, wildlife, people, weather patterns—can differ dramatically even within a mile or half-mile. But ATTO’s height distances it from the particular patch of canopy it’s planted in, allowing it to grab data from a vast area.

Need some space?

ATTO sits roughly 100 miles northeast of Manaus, the capital of the Brazilian state of Amazonas, in a remote swath of forest. The tower’s founders hope that distance will keep local human activities from affecting its measurements.

Beyond Climate Change

ATTO’s main purpose is to track carbon activity in the forest’s atmosphere, but scientists are already using it for a suite of other projects on everything from tree diversity to hydrology. The observatory’s founders also put it relatively close to Manaus so that students and postdoctoral researchers will be able to use it for research.

A Towering Question

Due to the complexities of deforestation, other human activities, and a number of ecological uncertainties, scientists can’t currently tell whether the Amazon is generally absorbing or emitting carbon. ATTO represents an attempt to answer that question. Built by two partnering institutions—Brazil’s National Institute for Amazonian Research and Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Chemistry—the observatory will provide the first source of continuous, long-term data on the forest’s carbon processes.

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