Breaking News: Amazon Rainforest Rapidly Reaching Tipping Point

A new report published by Nature, one of the most reliable scientific journals, shows that the Amazon rainforest is losing resilience and drying out. If the current pattern continues, the Amazon rainforest could become the Amazon savannah.

Photo by Nate Johnston on Unsplash

A startling report published by Nature on March 7, 2022, reveals that the Amazon rainforest may be rapidly reaching its climate tipping point. Parts of the forest may soon resemble a savannah ecosystem rather than a forest¹. Savannahs are grassland/woodland ecosystems that have sporadic trees but no closed tree canopy, or “roof” over the forest. Not enough rain falls on savannahs to support forests, which is bad news for the Amazon. The Amazon rainforest is one of the world’s largest biodiversity hotspots and green carbon sinks. If even only some parts of the rainforest transform into savannahs, the biodiversity and carbon storage loss would be devastating.

Two factors are causing the Amazon rainforest to lose its resilience and drying it out. The first: localized fires that more and more frequently transform into devastating mega-fires. The second: deforestation. Both of these phenomena impact the natural water cycle of the forest. Both are pushing parts of the forest towards becoming savannah.

The Tipping Point is Near

In climate science, there is a tipping point for ecosystem classification: the moment when an ecosystem, like a rainforest, becomes “committed” to transforming into a different ecosystem, like a savannah. In nature, this happens very slowly, after long periods of slow change. But human-driven climate change has accelerated this process.

The Nature study concludes that we are rapidly approaching this point in the Amazon rainforest. So, much of the natural water cycle in the Amazon rainforest will have been changed that no human efforts to restore it will be successful.

The Amazon’s Water Cycle

The Amazon rainforest’s resilience, or ability to restore itself, is dependent upon the water cycle. A key aspect of the rainforest is in the name: rain. The forest recycles water through trees that absorb water through their roots and release water through their leaves. The water condensates, forms clouds, and becomes rain, re-entering the forest again, and cycling the water through the ecosystem.

Fire, deforestation, and also drought, are damaging the trees in the forest.The damage accumulates like this:

Damaged water cycle ➡️ Less water in the forest ➡️ More risk for fires to damage the forest ➡️ Less trees ➡️ Even more damage to the water cycle⏩⏩ Savannah

Already in 2018, researchers warned that if 20–25% of the Amazon rainforest disappeared, the water cycle would be disrupted, and parts of the rainforest could transform into savannah².

Fires occur naturally in certain types of forests, like oak-hickory forests in North America. But not in the Amazon. So in 2020, when the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP) estimated that more than 2,500 major fires burned the Brazilian Amazon, it was even more clear that something was amiss in the water cycle. Worse, 41% of those fires burned in standing rainforests, not on cleared land³. That these fires burn and spread in standing rainforests shows where the forest’s water cycle has weakened.

Forest Fire in Brazil

Over the past 50 years, 17% of the Amazon rainforest has been destroyed⁴. That doesn’t seem like much right? Well, consider the destruction in 2020 alone: an area of forest the size of Israel was lost, and worse, it was primarily old growth forest⁵. Old-growth forests have a fully developed tree canopy, one of the requirements for a healthy rainforest’s water cycle. Losing old-growth forest to fire is more damaging to the water cycle than losing cleared land or replanted forests.

Regenerating the Forest

There is always room for hope. We have not reached the climate tipping point of the Amazon rainforest yet. The study says that “reducing deforestation will not just protect the parts of the forest that are directly threatened but also benefit Amazon rainforest resilience” overall.

And in the zones that have been damaged, regenerating forests is an opportunity too. Regenerated forests would restore balance to the water cycle, recapture excess carbon that has been released due to human activities and help save the Amazon rainforest for the generations to come.

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