Massive wildfires threaten to destroy the Amazon rainforest

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“Degradation means you still have the forest standing, but you're losing some structure, some functioning,” says Armenteras Pascual. “You might look at it and think it's a really beautiful forest, but it's not so healthy.”

Due to deterioration, the risk of forest fire also increases. And once a part of the Amazon burns, it is more likely to catch fire again. “When a forest burns, the trees die, which releases organic matter from the soil and opens up the canopy,” says Flores. “Therefore, there is more fuel available and more sunlight and wind can dry out this fuel, making the ecosystem more flammable. “The result is that burnt forests are much more likely to burn again.”

When considering the effects of human disturbance and extreme drought in recent decades, about 38 percent of what remains of the Amazon rainforest has already been lost, Flores and his colleagues found.

By considering all the factors contributing to Amazon degradation – climate change, drought, deforestation, wildfires – the team also developed models to predict future warming, erosion and fire trends. The findings are disappointing. Their models show that by 2050 temperatures over the Amazon basin are expected to be 2 to 4 degrees Celsius warmer than today, depending on greenhouse gas emissions over the next two and a half decades. By 2050, the Amazon's dry season could be a month longer than it is now. Wildfires are expected to increase in frequency and severity.

As a result, they estimate that about half of the Amazon could reach a “tipping point” by 2050, when it will no longer be forest at all and will be converted to savanna and grassland.

Its impact will be devastating locally and globally. A 2021 report by the Science Panel for the Amazon found that 10,000 species of rainforest plants and animals are at risk of extinction due to climate change and habitat destruction. Such widespread collapse could push these species over the edge. Many of the Amazon's 40 million human inhabitants could be displaced by the unbearable heat, and indigenous people in particular would lose their livelihoods, ways of life, and knowledge systems.

This may sound alarmist, but Armenteras Pascual believes that the warnings from Flores and his colleagues are, if anything, underestimated. “It's not like half of Amazon is going to collapse and the other half is going to do fine,” she says. “The whole system could collapse – the whole system in terms of hydrology, which is probably the most important role of the Amazon globally, its role in cooling the climate.”

If the Amazon were to undergo “massive collapse” by 2050, as Flores and his colleagues warn, it could release 120 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, about 3.5 years of global CO emissions currently. Is equal to.2 emissions. As a result, global temperatures could rise by 0.3 degrees Celsius.

Currently, an unusually high number of fires are expected to burn in the month of April, when the rainy season begins. “It's fire season,” says Armenteras Pascual, who works with the Colombian government to monitor emissions from fires in the northern Amazon. “Just last week we had 7,000 hectares of land burning in one of the nature reserves near the border with Venezuela that no one is talking about.”

She adds, “There have been some fires here in Colombia, too.” More than 1,000 fires burned in the Colombian Amazon in the first week of March, data from satellites shows. “The fires are burning,” says Armenteras Pascual, “and they are growing.”