Amazon Rainforest at a ‘Tipping Point,’ Top Scientists Warn

(CN) – Scientists warn that we have reached a tipping point in which the Amazon rainforest is in critical danger if swift action is not taken, according to an editorial published Friday in the journal Science Advances.

An area left scorched by fires is seen in the Menkragnoti indigenous reserve of the Kayapo indigenous group of Amazon rainforest in Altamira, Para state, Brazil, on Aug. 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

More than half of Earth’s rainforests have been destroyed by human activity, with the Amazon rainforest becoming increasingly threatened by frequent wildfires and devastating deforestation. Modern agriculture requires a great deal of land which is largely obtained through clearing trees from the rainforest.

Cattle pastures and other similar activities are the largest contributor to deforestation, with 80% currently occupying deforested land from the Amazon. Not to mention the runoff from these cattle grazing grounds enters and contaminates freshwater streams and rivers.

When commercial farmers slash and burn their parcels of land for crops or cattle, it renders the soil unfit to sustain growth after a year or two, leading them to relocate to a new parcel. This is done on a much larger scale than seen before in traditional practices, where instead of burning 1 – 4 hectares of land, it is closer to hundreds to thousands.

After a few years when the soil is no longer arable, farmers will turn to the use of soil to lengthen the life of the land. Unfortunately, this also causes runoff into freshwater sources. Once the land is deemed no longer efficient, it is abandoned and can no longer support local wildlife.

Contrary to popular belief, the damage to rainforests doesn’t pose a large threat to oxygen supply, but the reality is far worse. Rather than acting as the Earth’s lungs, scientists prefer to think of it as the Earth’s air conditioner.

As the largest rainforest on Earth, the Amazon rainforest is responsible for absorbing and storing roughly 20% of the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide, helping to reduce the greenhouse gas effect. Therefore, when deforestation occurs it releases huge amounts of carbon back into the atmosphere.

It also functions as a hotspot for biodiversity, an essential aspect of a functioning ecosystem, and there is no denying that deforestation has caused a critical loss of this benefit. It is said to contain about 50% of the world’s terrestrial plant and animal species, all becoming displaced by deforestation efforts.

Researchers say that when the land is converted into cattle grazing grounds, the flora and fauna in the area is left impoverished. Concerned scientists suggest a solution to this problem could be implementing a network of protected forests to ensure they remain untouched by commercial deforestation efforts.

The Amazon also functions as a critical link in the global water cycle, and another consequence of rainforest loss unfortunately pertains to the world’s water supply. Every single country in South America, Chile excluded as it is blocked by the Andes Mountains, relies on fresh water that is recycled by the Amazon rainforest.

It releases water back into the atmosphere through transpiration, a step in the photosynthesis process. The moisture released helps to form clouds and therefore produce rainfall, and as deforestation rages on, the rest of the world is prone to severe droughts. This is just one of the many benefits humans risk losing if this invaluable resource is destroyed.

Scientists are concerned that we have officially reached a point in which the Amazon will begin to self-destruct. At this rate, without strong and swift action, the rainforest won’t be able to produce enough rain to sustain itself by 2021.

If this happens, large portions of the landscape will convert to tropical savannah, leaving thousands of plants, animals and indigenous people to suffer the consequences.

It will release an unfathomable amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, further exacerbating climate change and disrupting weather across South America, according to the study.

“The only sensible way forward is to launch a major reforestation project, especially in the southern and eastern Amazon,” write Science Advances editors Thomas Lovejoy and Carlos Nobre. “A new vision of the Amazon will require a biologically based view of economic development, which would immediately eliminate illogical and short-sighted economies such as the unreliable monocultures of cattle, soybeans, and sugarcane.”

The authors present a vision for the future of the Amazon in which its economic role revolves around protecting its biodiversity, promoting the cultivation of aquaculture, new fungicides, agroecology systems in some deforested areas and sustainable cities worldwide.

Conservation efforts like selectively culling trees, imposing limits on land consumption and spreading awareness of the issue could be the only way to save this ecosystem.

 

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