The Amazon rainforest, one of the world’s most biologically diverse ecosystems and home to about three million species of plants and animals, is degrading much faster than previously thought, a new study has found. Amazon forest degradation is attributed mainly to human activities and climate change-driven droughts.
Ongoing land conversion and anthropogenic climate change may be responsible for the degradation of more than a third of the Amazon forest, twice as much as previous estimates, a new study has found.
Wildfires, land conversion, logging, and droughts have weakened up to 2.5 million sq km of the rainforest, an area 10 times the size of the UK, leaving it more vulnerable to “megafires” and compromising biodiversity and carbon storage.
According to the study, published in the scientific journal Science on Thursday, at this rate, Amazon forest degradation is on track to reach a tipping point, a critical threshold beyond which changes within the system would be irreversible. A study published in early 2022 had already suggested that the rainforest is close like never before to reaching a point of no return and thus losing its ability to recover from human-driven destruction.
According to the study, human activities and water shortages brought on by ongoing droughts have compromised the ability of up to 38% of the Amazon to regulate the climate, provide a liveable habitat to its rich biodiversity, and even sustain itself as a viable ecosystem.
The Amazon is the world’s largest rainforest – spanning 6.9 million sq km (2.72 million sq mi) and covering around 40% of the South American continent. Making up half of the planet’s remaining tropical forests, the forest is also one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems, home to about three million species of plants and animals and one million Indigenous people.
Like any other forest, the Amazon is a natural carbon sink and provides one of the greatest services for the planet: absorbing and storing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Yet, as a result of persistent deforestation and a sharp increase in wildfires, the forest has been converted into a source of carbon and is found to emit a greater amount of carbon dioxide than it is absorbing.
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Wildfires produce three times more carbon than the forests can absorb, thus creating a negative loop. A 2021 study revealed that the Amazon emitted about a billion tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, equal to the annual emissions released in Japan, the world’s fifth-biggest polluter.
Over the past 50 years, 17% of the total forest has been completely cleared. In September, deforestation in the Amazon hit yet another record high, with a total coverage loss equivalent to 1,455 sq km (563 sq mi). And over the course of last year, an area 12 times the size of New York City was cleared, according to a report by the non-profit institute research Imazon.
The situation significantly deteriorated under the administration of Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, who famously encourages logging and mining activities, causing deforestation rates to reach a 15-year high. Despite the results of October’s presidential elections raising hope for the future of the Amazon, countless animals remain on the brink of extinction, and crucial ecosystem services are already irreversibly compromised.
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