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New research has found that a larger part of the Amazon rainforest is at risk of crossing a tipping point where it could become a savanna-type ecosystem than previously thought. In around 40% of the rainforest, rainfall is now at a level where the forest could exist in either state- rainfall or savanna.

Based on computer models and data analysis, the research- published in Nature Communications– shows that parts of the Amazon region are currently receiving less rain than previously and this trend is expected to worsen as the region warms due to rising greenhouse gas emissions.

Rainforests are very sensitive to changes that affect rainfall for extended periods. If rainfall drops below a certain threshold, areas could shift into a savanna state. 

The research team focused on the stability of tropical rainforests in the Americas, Africa, Asia and Oceania. They were able to explore how rainforests respond to changing rainfall and simulate the downwind effects of disappearance of forests for all tropical forests. By doing this, they answered two questions: “if all the forests in the tropics disappeared, where would they grow back?” and “what happens if rainforests covered the entire tropical region of Earth?”

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The team ran the simulations starting with no forests in the tropics across Africa, the Americas, Asia and Australia and watched forests emerge over time in the models, which allowed them to explore the minimum forest cover for all regions. 

Lead author Arie Staal, formerly a postdoctoral researcher at the Stockholm Resilience Centre and the Copernicus Institute of Utrecht University, says, “The dynamics of tropical forests is interesting. As forests grow and spread across a region this affects rainfall- forests create their own rain because leaves give off water vapour and this falls as rain further downwind. Rainfall means fewer fires leading to even more forests. Our simulations capture this dynamic.”

The team then ran the models a second time, in a world where rainforests entirely covered the tropical regions of Earth. However, in many places there is an insufficient amount of rainfall to sustain a rainforest, so in many places, the model forests shrank due to a lack of moisture. Staal says, “As forests shrink, we get less rainfall downwind and this causes drying leading to more fire and forest loss: a vicious cycle.”

Finally, the team examined what will happen if emissions keep rising this century along a “very high-emissions” scenario used by the IPCC. The team found that as emissions grow, more parts of the Amazon lose their natural resilience, become unstable and more likely to dry out and transform to a savanna-type ecosystem. Even the most resilient parts of the rainforest will shrink. This means that more of the rainforest is likely to cross a tipping point as emissions reach very high levels. 

The conclusion? The smallest area that can sustain a rainforest in the Amazon contracts a substantial 66% in the high-emissions scenario.

Ingo Fetzer of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, says, “We understand now that rainforests on all continents are very sensitive to global change and can rapidly lose their ability to adapt. Once gone, their recovery will take many decades to return to their original state. And given that rainforests host the majority of all global species, all this will be forever lost.”

In comparison, the minimal and maximal extents of the rainforests of Indonesia and Malaysia are relatively stable because their rainfall is more dependent on the ocean around them than on rainfall generated as a result of forest cover.

It is important to note that the study only explored the impacts of the climate crisis on tropical forests; it did not assess the additional stress of deforestation in the tropics due to agricultural expansion and logging. It is possible then that the Amazon may cross a tipping point even sooner because of relentless deforestation in the region, encouraged by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. 

To mitigate deforestation of the Amazon by human impact, international and domestic actors must cooperate to find a solution. While the Bolsonaro administration has made its stance on deforestation and environmental conservation abundantly clear, the country’s decentralised federal governing system allows for a great deal of executive and legislative autonomy for Brazilian states. Individual states can break from the party line, as demonstrated during the country’s COVID-19 outbreak, when states opted to dismiss the President’s recommendations and implement their own ordinances to soften the effects of the virus. Individual states and governors will need to unite behind a common goal of slowing deforestation. Once this happens, international organisations and domestic NGOs could bypass President Bolsonaro’s protectionist policies and deal directly with the states that govern areas at risk of deforestation, by subsidising economic programmes that incentivise illegal loggers to pursue other opportunities.

Featured image by: Flickr 

The Ministry of Environment in Brazil has said that it will continue operations to restrict deforestation and fires in the Amazon and other regions. The announcement follows an earlier decision to halt such operations starting on August 31. 

The decision was shared on the ministry’s website on August 28 after vice president Hamilton Mourão said Environment Minister Ricardo Salles acted “hastily” when he said the government had run out of money for operations against deforestation.

The ministry had previously said that it had been blocked from accessing over $11 million for environmental protection, which would have demobilised over 1 300 firefighters, hundreds of inspection agents, six helicopters and 10 planes. However, Mourão told reporters that no operations would be stopped despite the ministry’s statement and that Brazil would continue to work to restrict deforestation in the Amazon. 

In May, president Jair Bolsonaro put the army in charge of protecting the Amazon rainforest in May, following international demands for action after wildfires in the rainforest skyrocketed recently. However, the operation proved to be a failure, as investigation and prosecution of rainforest destruction by ranchers, farmers and miners ended, even as this year’s burning season increased. Instead, the army seems to be focusing on small road-and-bridge-building projects that allow exporters to flow faster to ports and ease access to protected areas in the forest. There have also been no major raids against illegal activity since Bolsonaro required military approval for them a few months ago.

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon

According to data published by the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP), 516 fires covering 376 416 hectares have been detected between May 28 and August 25. 83% of these fires have burned in recently deforested areas, while 12% have occurred within intact forests. 97% of the fires are illegal. 

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A graph showing the accumulated Amazon deforestation rates from August 1 to July 31 from 2008 to 2020 (Source: Mongabay).

Overall, deforestation in the Amazon has risen sharply since January 2019 when Jair Bolsonaro became president. Bolsonaro promised to open the Amazon to more mining, logging and industrial agriculture. His administration has subsequently relaxed environmental law enforcement and penalties and issued executive orders opening up protected areas and indigenous lands to logging, mining and agribusiness. 

Featured image by: Amazônia Real

The Amazon rainforest is still experiencing wildfires, according to satellite imagery. Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) reports that as many as 82,285 fires have been detected in the rainforest so far this year – a significant increase from the same period in 2018. The findings pitted scientists against national authorities who vehemently disputed the data, marring the government into an international controversy from which it was forced to back down during the latest G7 meeting in Biarritz. 

The blazes erupted last month were so large that plumes of smoke are visible from space, and have wafted thousands of miles east to the Atlantic Coast plunging Brazil’s largest city São Paulo into hazy darkness in the middle of the day.

The Amazon has been increasingly threatened by man-made wildfires for more than three decades now. Earth.Org analysed satellite data to create a year-by-year pattern of fires across the Amazon rainforest since 2011. We used current and historical data from two NASA satellites, Terra and Aqua, which tracked the fire by detecting the infrared radiation emitted by blazes.

2019 — Over 18,700 sq km of the rainforest — an area larger than Fiji — are currently burning in the Brazilian part of the Amazon, while another 7,250 sq km in neighboring Bolivia too are on fire. These blazes endanger the lives of 1 million indigenous people and millions of other species and plants.

2018 — Data shows that over 45,656 fires were active this year — significantly fewer number compared to 2019.

2017 — This was another worst year that recorded the highest number of fires compared to the previous 10 years. Data reveals that there was a 29% rise in the number of fires in the rainforest since 2016.

2016 — Brazil suffered its worst drought in decades and saw an outbreak of more than 68,000 fires this year.

2015 — Wildfires that lasted more than two months consumed more than 4040 sq km of indigenous territory in the Maranhão region in Brazil this year. As many as 58,936 fires were recorded in Brazilian Amazon.

2014 — This year marked the beginning of a rapid rise of wildfires in the Amazon forest in this decade with 64,632 blazes was recorded in the dry season.

What Satellite Imagery Tells Us About Amazon Wildfires

2011-2013 — This three year period had a fewer number of fires — over 40,000 –compared to the later years.

What Satellite Imagery Tells Us About Amazon Wildfires

Wildfires in Brazil consume not just rainforest, but grasslands, savanna, and farmlands too. The yearly analysis shows a sharp increase in blazes that consumes rainforests compared to others.

What Satellite Imagery Tells Us About Amazon Wildfires

Amazon rainforest is spread across Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, Venezuela, Suriname, Guyana, and French Guiana. Besides Brazil, other countries too witness wildfires in their territory. But fires usually consume the largest area in Brazilian Amazon compared to other countries.

What caused the Amazon fire?

The Amazon —  the largest and most diverse tropical rainforest on Earth, covering an area of 5.5 million sq km — almost never burns on its own given the moisty climate and terrain.  Deforestation is directly linked to fires in the Amazon as farmers set the forest ablaze to make room for livestock pastures and crop fields while these purposeful burns get out of control. The uptick in fires in the period between August to October coincides with the seasonal planting of soybean and corn crops.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimates that 17% of the Amazon rainforest has been lost in the past five decades. Wildfires in recent years have added to that growing cumulative total of deforestation. With an increasing number of fires, Amazon eventually might reach a tipping point after which the forest might turn into a Savanna ecosystem or a seasonal forest. Every bit of satellite data we processed points to such scenarios. 

The most critical task at hand to preserve the Amazon is to retain what’s left by stopping the ongoing wildfires and deforestation as quickly as possible aided by satellite imagery. Brazil and other Amazon countries will have to develop a mechanism to protect and restore the rainforest in face of rising demand for agricultural lands.  

Deforestation rates in the Amazon, the world’s largest rainforest, hit the highest level last month since the current monitoring system began in 2015. 

The Amazon Rainforest Fire

The raging wildfires that have been consuming vast tracts of woodlands in the Amazon rainforest raised unprecedented concerns among political leaders and environmentally conscious citizens worldwide. But the wildfires are not the only threats faced by the Amazon, which covers 5.5 million sq km of land over nine countries in South America. 

The world’s largest tropical rainforest has been under serious threats from extensive deforestation due to farming and cattle ranching, illegal mining, and illegal logging for decades. 

Over 750,000 sq km of the Amazon rainforest have been destroyed across Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, Venezuela, Suriname, Guyana, and French Guiana since 1978.  One of the biggest drivers of such large-scale deforestation is cattle ranching. Low input cost and easy transportation in rural areas make cattle ranching an attractive economic activity in the forest frontier.  Brazil, which holds 60% of the Amazon, is now the world’s largest beef exporter, and in 2018 alone, these exports generated $6.7 billion for the country’s economy. The ranching accounts for over 80% of current deforestation rates in the Amazon.

Extensive soy cultivation is another activity that has been driving deforestation. Brazil — the second-largest producer of soybeans in the world — has cleared hectors of forest land to accommodate new cultivation. Rampant illegal logging is also causing degradation of the forest, which hosts abundant timber resources like Mahogany, Spanish cedar, and other members of the Meliaceae family.

An epidemic of illegal mining has also been threatening indigenous territories of the Amazon for decades. The Amazon Geo-Referenced Socio-Environmental Information Network (RAISG)– a consortium of civil society organisations in South America — revealed that there were as many as 2,312 illegal mining sites in 245 areas inside the forest across six countries. Illegal miners have established sophisticated infrastructure uprooting millions of trees and contaminating rivers with mercury as they dredge for gold and extract diamonds and coltan.  A study by researchers from the University of Puerto Rico found that approximately 415,000 acres of tropical forest have been lost to gold mining.

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NASA’s ECOSTRESS — a radiometer mounted on the International Space Station — captured a snapshot of fires burning in the Bolivian Amazon on August 23, 2019.

A bleak future?

The ongoing deforestation and this year’s fire have already done unprecedented damage to the Amazon. Climate change and increase in greenhouse gas emissions may also take a heavy toll on the rainforest, which is home to half the world’s species of plants and animals.   We recently published a study that examined the Amazon forest’s response to carbon dioxide fertilisation. Our results suggested that the resilience of the region to climate change may be much less than previously assumed. 

Restoring degraded parts of the forest might not be very easy. Our study showed that limited phosphorous availability in the tropical forest is negatively affecting its CO2 fertilisation abilities, therefore, causing the slowest growth of plant species than previously understood. The fire and deforestation may release the remaining phosphate into the atmosphere further worsening the situation. 

Another study suggested that climate change and extreme weather conditions may trigger a feedback loop accelerating dieback in the Amazon. A prolonged dry season and increased temperature in the region may cause a new drought. Since the Amazon recycles its rainwater, the reduced evapotranspiration may intensify the drought eventually leading to a tipping point after which forest would start to dieback faster and turn into a Savannah ecosystem.

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