Sarah Batterman researches the storage of CO2 in tropical forests and how nutrient levels in the ecosystem can hinder or encourage forest growth.
At Agua Salud, Sarah observed that tropical trees were able to soak up CO2 from the atmosphere to re-build a rainforest very rapidly following deforestation. She discovered that this was because specific trees related to beans would form a symbiosis with nitrogen-fixing bacteria—microorganisms that can transform nitrogen from the atmosphere into fixed nitrogen usable by plants. These nitrogen-fixing trees are powerful enough to supply more than half of the nitrogen needed to rebuild a forest capable of storing half as much CO2 as a mature forest, within a few decades.
Sarah is now working with Jefferson Hall and others at Agua Salud to test how different nutrients constrain nitrogen fixation and forest recovery in a large-scale fertilization experiment. This research will help address whether tropical forests will serve as a carbon sink in the future and offset CO2 emissions from fossil fuels.
Sarah was a Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute Short-Term Fellow while a PhD student at Princeton University and is currently a faculty member at the University of Leeds, U.K.
The Agua Salud Project at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama studies how degraded landscapes can be efficiently transformed into productive secondary forests, timber plantations, natural water utilities or eco-friendly livestock ranches. Agua Salud continues a 100-year old partnership between Smithsonian and Panama. This collaborative relationship began in 1910, with the Panama Biological Survey.