Sustainable Development

This is what’s happening to the Amazon, according to NASA

A Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) fire brigade member is seen as he attempts to control hot points during a fire at Tenharim Marmelos Indigenous Land, Amazonas state, Brazil, September 15, 2019. Picture taken September 15, 2019. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RC19585F4790

Amazon deforestation is happening largely due to fires set by farmers who want more land for cattle. Image: REUTERS/Bruno Kelly

Johnny Wood
Writer, Forum Agenda
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Plastic Pollution

Human activity is drying out the air above the Amazon, according to a new study, raising fears the planet’s biggest and most biodiverse rainforest will soon be unable to sustain itself.

Researchers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California analyzed atmospheric moisture levels over the Amazon going back two decades. They found a significant drop over time, with forest trees requiring more water to cool down – water that can’t be provided by the atmosphere or the forest soil.

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Less moisture in the atmosphere makes forest ecosystems increasingly vulnerable to fires and drought, which reduces biodiversity and threatens the forest’s future.

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"In comparing this trend to data from models that estimate climate variability over thousands of years, we determined that the change in atmospheric aridity is well beyond what would be expected from natural climate variability," said Armineh Barkhordarian, the study’s lead author – suggesting humans are the catalyst of the problem.

Tree clearance

Rainforests like the Amazon help slow the effects of climate change by acting as a vast sponge, absorbing harmful carbon dioxide from the planet’s atmosphere, and in turn, keeping temperatures down and slowing the impact of climate change. But the forest’s ability to decarbonize is being undermined by deforestation.

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon from 2004 to 2018 Image: Statista

Brazil is responsible for approximately half of the Amazon’s deforestation, and rising, according to WWF figures. Countries like Bolivia and Peru are also experiencing increases.

Government policies in Brazil, such as stricter enforcement of laws restricting forest clearances and the growth of private sector initiatives, have helped reduce the soaring deforestation of the early 2000s. However, restrictions have since been relaxed.

Human logging activity and fires set intentionally to clear land for ranching or agriculture have laid waste vast tracts of Amazon tree canopy in recent decades, too.

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A heavy price

When forest trees are felled or set ablaze, there are fewer to soak up carbon from the atmosphere. Meanwhile, carbon stored in the trees is released, exacerbating climate change. Over time, this process turns forests from carbon sponges into CO2 emitters.

With loss of animal habitats and biodiversity included, deforestation comes with a heavy environmental price tag.

The planet loses around 18.7 million acres of forest each year, the equivalent of 27 soccer fields each minute. But this trend can be reversed.

In Costa Rica, decades of deforestation saw almost two-thirds of the nation’s forest cover disappear, and by 1983 just 26% remained.

Since then, major policy changes have brought the country’s forests back to life. Government initiatives were put in place to restrict logging permits, pay landowners who conserve their land and encourage overseas investment in eco-tourism. Today, forests cover more than half of the country, which has committed to fully decarbonizing by 2050.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting of the Global Future Councils in Dubai, Carlos Manuel Rodríguez, Costa Rica’s Minister for Environment and Energy, revealed that his secret weapon for tackling climate change is… trees.

The planet has used this natural resource to regulate the atmosphere for millennia, so there is hope for our rainforests.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Sustainable DevelopmentNature and BiodiversityClimate ActionGlobal Risks
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