The Amazon rainforest is seriously ill, and with it the whole planet. In two literature reviews published Thursday, January 26 in Science, some 50 international researchers warn of the rapid and profound changes taking place in the Earth’s lungs due to the pressure of human activities. By causing both accelerated deforestation and degradation of this region, they threaten the climate, biodiversity, the well-being of local populations, and more broadly humanity.
Stretching across nine countries (mainly Brazil), the Amazon rainforest is among the most vital ecosystems on the planet. It is home to almost a third of the known species on Earth, including 390 billion trees, and helps maintain the global carbon and water cycles. At the same time, it is particularly vulnerable: 17% of the original forest has been destroyed, and 9% severely degraded, or 26% affected, according to the first study.
In question: deforestation, caused by agricultural and industrial activities – which has reached record levels in Brazil under the mandate (2019-2023) of Jair Bolsonaro –, and climate change, also caused by human activities. This destruction of Amazonian ecosystems is occurring at an unprecedented rate, hundreds or even thousands of times faster than any natural climatic or geological phenomenon in the past, warns the study, with supporting figures.
Future net emitter of CO2
The acceleration is such that all Amazonian species, peoples and ecosystems cannot adapt to it. As a result, the Amazon is approaching an irreversible tipping point, where entire swathes of forests will be permanently transformed into savannahs – previous reports have shown that this point of no return has already been reached in some areas, in the south and east of the basin.
After millions of years of functioning as a powerful carbon sink, the Amazon should soon turn into a net emitter of CO2. Both because forests release carbon when they are destroyed, degraded or burned, but also because being less dense in trees, they can sequester less.
“We know the measures to be taken urgently. It’s a matter of political will,” says scientist James Albert.
The consequences for the climate are staggering: the release of all the carbon contained in the Amazonian forests and soils (about 180 billion tons) would sufficiently increase the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere to raise the global temperature by more than one degree, warns James Albert, professor of ecology at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and first author of the study. Fewer trees also means less rainfall, more arid soils, more regular and severe droughts, which will in turn lead to more devastating forest fires, in a form of a vicious circle.
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