The Amazon is the largest rainforest in the world. It covers 6.9 million square kilometers (2.72 million square miles), with two-thirds of it situated in Brazil. The rainforest contains approximately 16,000 tree species and 2.5 million insect species, with half of all species living in the canopy. Its 390 billion trees act as a major carbon storage sink, by drawing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to make food, mainly glucose, through photosynthesis. This locks carbon dioxide in, so it does not contribute to the greenhouse effect, which warms the planet.
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The Amazon is a major player in determining global climate. It transpires water which creates clouds and transports moisture around the globe. It provides most of the world’s biodiversity, with 1 in 10 species living there.
However, scientists have revealed that climate change, deforestation and forest fires mean that the Amazon has reached a tipping point. It is drying out, so unless action is taken quickly, the situation will become irreversible, and mitigating actions will be futile.
If the Amazon dries out, it could begin to contribute more to climate change than it currently prevents. The carbon that rainforests store is released when trees are cut down, die, or burned, usually because of deforestation. The biggest cause of deforestation in the Amazon is cattle ranching, which accounts for some 70 percent, with the remaining 30 percent attributed to unsustainable agriculture, such as palm oil and soy monocultures, illegal logging and gold mining, which drive further devastation.
Paris Climate Agreement and the COP26 Forest Agreement
The 2015 Paris Climate Agreement was a landmark agreement, signed by 196 parties. It set legally binding goals to limit warming to below 2 ˚C, preferably 1.5 ˚C, pre-industrial levels, through social and economic transformation.
Following on from Paris was COP26 in Glasgow 2021, which reaffirmed pledges and agreed on a host of new agreements, including action on deforestation.
At COP26, following a deal with developed countries to provide a range of multi-million dollar finance packages, Brazil agreed to end all deforestation by 2030.
Deforestation Rates in the Brazilian Amazon
Deforestation is the second-largest source of global greenhouse gas emissions, after burning fossil fuels for electricity, heat and transportation.
Between 1990 and 2005, Brazil’s deforestation occurred at a rate of 13 million hectares per year, which equates to 20 percent of all global greenhouse emissions.
In 2006, 8,800 square miles of rainforest were lost, the highest single loss recorded in any year since records began.
By 2014, global deforestation had risen to 30 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions.
Climate 101: Deforestation | National Geographic
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Stumbling Blocks to Ending Deforestation
International demand for beef and soy has driven forest clearance. Brazil has also advocated mining and commercial farming to lift the region out of poverty.
In January 2022, despite pledges to bring it under control, deforestation totaled 430 square kilometers (166 square miles) in a single month. This is the highest it has ever been, and five times higher than in January 2021.
Another stumbling block is a lack of scientific field data to support the need to cease deforestation.
Amazon Deforestation Reaches Tipping Point
Tipping points are defined as abrupt or irreversible changes to a given ecosystem, whereby their state changes from stable to unstable.
Scientists have found evidence contained in the fossil record and ice cores that the Earth’s history is littered with abrupt tipping points, following both sudden catastrophic events such as forest fires, and slow events such as ice sheet melts.
Tipping points create a permanent change to both the immediate environment, and a knock-on effect on inter-connected systems, such as global climate temperature or sea-level rise.
Tipping points are commonly used in IPCC reports to describe the effects of climate change for policymakers, examples of which include Atlantic circulation, permafrost melt and methane release, or in the case of Amazon forest dieback, carbon dioxide release.
In 2018, climate researchers working at the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil, and George Mason University, Virginia, raised the alarm after climate modeling suggested that if just 20-25% of the Amazon was deforested, a tipping point would result in eastern, southern and central Amazonia flipping rapidly to a savannah ecosystem.
If this happens, one million indigenous people that live in and depend upon the Amazon will be affected. Millions more animals, birds, reptiles, insects and plants will have to adapt, migrate or face extinction.
Billions of tons of carbon dioxide will be released into the atmosphere as trees die or burn. In turn, this will further weaken trees left at the edge of the forest, making them more susceptible to disease and forest fires.
A single event can rapidly escalate out of control and reach a tipping point.
Rainforest environments are inter-connected through symbiotic relationships between air, soil and species. Each depends on the health of another to maintain their own stability required for survival.
Less Amazonian moisture creates less rainfall through central and southern South America, and changes global climate patterns.
Deforestation essentially creates a positive feedback loop, meaning it accelerates global temperature rise. If positive feedback loops continue, the world faces increasing catastrophic climate events, until eventual run-away climate change results in a systematic breakdown and collapse of the global economy of society as we know it today, and of global ecological health.
Satellite Technology Records Amazon Deforestation
New data published in Nature, reveals satellite images used to track deforestation indicate that between 1991 and 2016, there are worrying signs of a loss of resilience in more than 75% of trees, suggesting movement towards a rapid tipping point and transformation to savannah terrain.
Loss of resilience could trigger further dieback.
Satellite images show around a fifth, or 20 percent, of the forest, has been lost since pre-industrial levels.
The research carried out by the University of Exeter, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), and the Technical University of Munich supports previous research that climate change and deforestation are pushing the Amazon towards a tipping point.
Although scientists differ in their opinion on when the exact point of no return could be reached, they are united in the view that trees losing health will push the rainforest into a further loss of trees, and a downwards cycle of positive feedback loops.
Previous studies have shown some parts of the Amazon are indeed emitting more carbon dioxide than they are absorbing.
FACE Trials Needed for Tropical Rainforests
Free-air CO2 enrichment (FACE) experiments carried out in other forests have pumped air from large towers into 30-meter-wide circular patches of forest to observe what happens when forests face rises in CO2.
They found that young forests grow faster with increased CO2, although mature trees such as eucalyptus did not gain more biomass.
In 2013, FACE researchers were awarded US $1.25 million from the Inter-development bank to start the same project in the Amazon. However, funding has not been renewed.
Researchers can only currently measure the effects of high CO2 on individual saplings as they cannot build the high towers in Brazil required to study its canopy.
Much of the research being conducted is currently limited to computer modeling which can simulate rainforest settings, but field testing is ideal to confirm model predictions.
Amazon $1.3 Billion Finance Deal Halted
The Amazon Fund received payments of $1.3 billion from international donors, mainly Norway and Germany, for conservation and sustainable development.
Further payments were subsequently halted in 2019.
It is not certain if a tipping point has yet been reached, indeed many think damage can still be reversed if urgent action is taken, but without more research, the future of the Amazon rainforest and all that depend on it hangs in the balance.
References and Further Reading
Deforestation triggering irreversible transition in Amazon hydrological cycle in iopscience online (02.28.2022) Xu.X, Zhang,X, Riley.W, Xue.Y, Nobre,C.A, Lovejoy, T,E, Jia,G (accessed 03.15.2022) https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ac4c1d/meta
Forecasting Amazon Rain-Forest Deforestation using a Hybrid Machine Learning Model in MDPI journal Vol 14 Issue 2, online 01.09.2022 (Dominguez.D, del Villar,L,d,J, Pantoja,O, Rodriguez,M.G, (accessed 03.15.2022) https://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/14/2/691/htm
Amazon deforestation: record high destruction of trees in January (02.11.2022) Rannard.G in BBC news online (accessed 03.15.2022)https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-60333422
Brazil: Amazon sees worst deforestation levels in 15 years (11.19.2021) in BBC News online (accessed 03.15.2022) https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-59341770
The Growing Risk of Climate “Tipping Points”: Scientific Evidence and Policy Responses (02.04.2022) in Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) online (2022) (accessed 03.15.2022) https://www.cfr.org/event/growing-risk-climate-tipping-points-scientific-evidence-and-policy-responses
When will the Amazon hit a tipping point? Amigo.I (02.25.2020) in Nature journal online (accessed 03.15.2022) https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-00508-4
Amazon Aid Foundation ‘Climate Change’ (2022) (accessed (03.16.2022) https://amazonaid.org
10 Facts about the Amazon Rainforest in 2022 (02.25.2022) Butler.R in Mongabay online (accessed 03.16.2022) https://rainforests.mongabay.com/amazon/amazon-rainforest-facts.html
The Paris Agreement (2015 /16) in UNFCCC (accessed 03.16.2022)https://unfccc.int/process-and-meetings/the-paris-agreement/the-paris-agreement
Deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest hits record January high (02.11.2022) Spring.J. In Reuters online (accessed 03.16.2022)
Amazon rainforest reaching tipping point, researchers say (03.08.2022) Briggs.H in BBC news online (accessed 03.17.2022) https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-60650415