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Death Of A Rainforest: Amazon Near Tipping Point Of Transitioning To Savanna, Study Says


By William McGee

Researchers analyzing changes in vegetation biomass have warned that the Amazon rainforest risks transitioning to savanna — a flat grassland with few trees spaced far apart — with dire consequences for the climate.

The vast Amazon rainforest covers 2.1 million square miles across nine nations. It counts for over half of the world’s rainforest coverage and is the largest and most biodiverse tract of tropical rainforest on the planet.

Chris Boulton and Timothy Lenton from the Global Systems Institute of the University of Exeter, working with Niklas Boers from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, have published a study, appearing in the journal Nature Climate Change, showing that the so-called “lungs of the Earth” are at significant risk.

A section of the Amazon rainforest decimated by wildfires, photographed on August 25, 2019, in the Candeias do Jamari region near Porto Velho, Brazil. According to Brazil’s National Institute of Space Research, the number of fires detected by satellite in the Amazon region during this month was the highest since 2010. (Victor Moriyama/Getty Images)

“Reduced resilience — the ability to recover from perturbations like droughts or fires — can mean an increased risk of dieback of the Amazon rainforest. That we see such a resilience loss in observations is worrying,” said Boers.

The authors noted that deforestation and climate change, in the form of longer dry seasons and rising drought frequency, may have already pushed the Amazon close to “a critical threshold of rainforest dieback,” or the point at which the rainforest will transition into savanna.

The researchers used data analysis of high-resolution satellite images to show that “more than three-quarters of the Amazon rainforest has been losing resilience since the early 2000s, consistent with the approach to a critical transition.”

A section of the Amazon rainforest that was decimated by wildfires on August 25, 2019, in the Candeias do Jamari region near Porto Velho, Brazil. Deforestation, drought and wildfires are pushing the rainforest dangerously close to the tipping point in transitioning to become savanna. (Victor Moriyama/Getty Images)

In a statement issued by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Boers starkly warns: “We cannot tell when a potential transition from rainforest to savanna might happen. When it [becomes] observable, it [will] likely be too late to stop it.

“The Amazon rainforest is a home to a unique host of biodiversity, strongly influences rainfall all over South America by way of its enormous evapotranspiration and stores huge amounts of carbon that could be released as greenhouse gases in the case of even partial dieback, in turn contributing to further global warming,” he said.

Evapotranspiration is the process by which water on the land evaporates into the atmosphere along with water being transpired from plants.

An aerial view of the Xingu River near the under-construction Belo Monte dam complex in the Amazon basin on June 15, 2012, near Altamira, Brazil. The Belo Monte dam, which began producing energy in 2016, was initially projected to become the world’s third-largest hydroelectric project, displacing up to 20,000 people and diverting the Xingu River while flooding as much as 230 square miles of rainforest. The controversial project was one of around 60 hydroelectric projects Brazil had planned in the Amazon to generate electricity for its rapidly expanding economy. The Brazilian Amazon, home to 60 percent of the world’s largest forest and 20 percent of the Earth’s oxygen, remains threatened by the rapid development of the country. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Strongly limiting logging and global greenhouse gas emissions “is necessary to safeguard the Amazon,” according to Lenton.

The research forms part of the project “Tipping Points in the Earth System” (TiPES), which is funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 program.

Edited by Siân Speakman and Kristen Butler

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