Amazon Nearing Tipping Point, Could Switch from Rainforest to Savannah

Image: Tom Fisk/Pexels

by Amy Lupica, ODP Contributing Writer 

A new study published in Nature Communications, found that the Amazon rainforest is nearing the tipping point of switching from rainforest to savannah much faster than previously thought. New forecasts show that the Amazon may not have enough rain to sustain itself by 2021. 

Logging, wildfires, and drought have contributed to this acceleration, and experts fear that the switch could gravely endanger species and ecosystems. Additionally, the Amazon serves as one of the largest carbon sinks in the world, and although savannahs and grasslands can absorb large amounts of carbon, they aren’t as effective at removing CO2 from the atmosphere as forests.

Why This Matters: Due to human impacts, in about 40% of the Amazon the rainfall is now at a level where the forest could exist in either state—rainforest or savannah. As swaths of the rainforest begin to wither, lose moisture, and become savannah, crucial water resources will be removed from the region permanently, further contributing to drought. 

This cycle will also increase the destruction of wildfires which, in 2020, were the worst in a decade for the Amazon. As the forest converts to savannah, it will release billions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere, warming the earth and putting more stress on carbon sinks like oceans, which are already losing their ability to store carbon

A Rapid Reckoning: Researchers say that once the conversion process from rainforest to savannah begins, it is very hard to reverse; now, experts fear that we don’t have time to reverse this process despite our best efforts.

Further studies have explained this rapid acceleration, finding that larger, more complex biomes fall faster than smaller ones.  Researchers estimate that once the tipping point is reached, it could take less than 50 years for a biome the size of the Amazon to collapse completely.  John Dearing, a professor in physical geography at the University of Southampton urges people not to be “taken in by the longevity of these systems just because they may have been around for thousands, if not millions, of years.” He said, “they will collapse much more rapidly than we think.” 

Political Motivations: President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil has promised to continue the development of the Amazon rainforest, ignoring critics and environmentalists who want to see the forest preserved. One critic, presidential candidate Joe Biden, recently threatened Brazil with “economic consequences” if it did not stop damaging the rainforest. Bolsonaro disregarded the statement as cowardly.

In the first 9 months of 2020, Amazon forest fires increased by 13% compared to last year. According to fire monitoring tools at NASA, the Amazon currently has 28,892 active fires spanning 9 different countries. Due to this damage, about 20% of the Amazon has become a net positive source of carbon, with healthy forest unable to absorb the carbon flowing freely into the atmosphere. Environmentalists emphasize that the forest is paying the price of climate change, Ane Alencar, science director for Brazil’s Amazon Environmental Research said of the current drought, “we are at the mercy of the rain.” 

 

Up Next

One Green Thing: Forest Regrowth Globally Equals an Area the Size of France

One Green Thing: Forest Regrowth Globally Equals an Area the Size of France

A team of scientists from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Birdlife International, and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) used satellite data to build a map of forests that have been regenerated around the globe since 2000 and determined that when added together it equals an area the size of France.  Those new forests “have the […]

Continue Reading 177 words
California’s Wildfire Season Could Break Records AGAIN

California’s Wildfire Season Could Break Records AGAIN

The state of California is already warning, that due to the 2-year ongoing drought, this year’s fire season could be worse than last. Overall, more than 6,390 square miles burned in 10,431 wildfires in California in 2020 — it was the largest wildfire season recorded in California’s modern history. Five of the state’s largest wildfires happened last year.  […]

Continue Reading 140 words
Can a New Satellite Company Shore Up Forest Carbon Offsets?

Can a New Satellite Company Shore Up Forest Carbon Offsets?

Corporations attempting to reduce their carbon footprint in the short run are restoring forests as a way of offsetting the carbon they release into the atmosphere. But some of these initiatives may be less effective than advertised. They are alleged to have inflated the amount of carbon saved from corporate ownership or claimed to protect land that was never under threat of logging. 

Why this Matters:  In 2020, companies bought more than 93 million carbon credits, equivalent to the pollution from 20 million cars in a year, a 33% increase over 2019.

Continue Reading 418 words

Want the planet in your inbox?

Subscribe to the email that top lawmakers, renowned scientists, and thousands of concerned citizens turn to each morning for the latest environmental news and analysis.