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Research of USF Civil and Environmental Engineering professor featured in Sustainability Nature, could guide hydropower development in the Amazon


The Sinop Dam —pictured under construction — is one in a network of planned and existing dams on tributaries of the Amazon River that could be impacted by a recent research paper published by USF Civil and Environmental Engineering Assistant Professor Mauricio Arias, Ph.D., recently featured in Nature Sustainability.

by Russell Nay

USF Civil and Environmental Engineering Assistant Professor Mauricio Arias, Ph.D., has spent the last decade conducting research into the effects of dams built on some of the most biodiverse rivers in the world.

His most recent work focused on the hydropower potential of the largest network of planned and existing dams in the Amazon River Basin, and was featured in a March edition of international science journal Nature branch Nature Sustainability.

“This research started while I was doing my postdoc in the sustainability science program at Harvard, and there’s a lot of cumulative interdisciplinary work that went into it,” Arias said. “It’s the culmination of a series of papers looking at regional environmental change before we were able to get to this final point.”

Unlike the previous portion of Arias’ research on the Mekong River in Southeast Asia, which was concerned with the impact of dams on the river’s billion-dollar fishery yields, his research on the Amazon focused on dams’ energy production.

Arias said that Brazilian government officials are using historic rainfall data and water level trends to justify expanding hydropower operations — the principle source of electricity for the country — throughout the Amazon. Data on current largescale rainfall patterns and the expected future quantity of water in regions of the river, he said, would be a much more accurate indicator of potential hydropower outputs.

Coordinating the construction and operation of dams on the Amazon to these projections could also lead to more productive and responsible energy planning.

As a water resources engineer, Arias was part of a collaborative research group throughout both projects concerning the Mekong and the Amazon. Co-authors on the recent paper featured in Nature Sustainability include Harvard faculty, a NASA research scientist and the Chief of Staff of the Brazilian Energy Research Bureau (Empresa de Pesquisa Energética).

“I gave my expertise in water resources, engineering and sustainability, but you have to think beyond that,” Arias said. “You have to recognize that other people are not only interested in water but in other areas like energy, food and biodiversity, and then you have to consider not only scientists and researchers but also policy makers. Sustainability science all needs to be applied research. It all needs to go into policy, otherwise it’s not very relevant.”

arias, chief engineer, fabio

Arias (left) and European Commission Joint Research Centre collaborator Fabio Farinosi (right) stand with the chief construction engineer of one of the Amazon dams investigated in Arias’ and Farinosi’s recent paper.

This is the fourth paper Arias’ research has helped produce on the Amazon, and he said getting this last one featured in Nature Sustainability required a tedious reproving of the accuracy of the tools, techniques and data used throughout his five years of research. Arias said the feature gives him hope as a researcher that his work can have a positive impact on the future of the Amazon.

Arias’ research in the Amazon isn’t finished yet. He plans to use the projections and data from the most recent paper to optimize the performance and impact of the dams that do end up being built.

This ongoing research also creates opportunities for new collaborations, including a National Science Foundation Research Coordination Network around dams in the Amazon and USF ’s Institute for the Study of Latin America and the Caribbean (ISLAC). While some of his students have been involved in past pieces of his research, Arias said that studying the optimization of dams on the Amazon would be uncharted territory for research at USF and elsewhere.