Parts of the Amazon Emit More Carbon Than They Absorb

The Amazon River Basin is home to our planet’s largest rainforest: roughly the size of the forty-eight contiguous United States and covers about 40% of the South American continent. While this vast forest has traditionally been a carbon sink, for years scientists have feared that the Amazon could turn into a carbon source instead. A new study in Nature has confirmed that parts of Southeastern Amazonia are indeed emitting more carbon dioxide than they absorb. 

This is a result of deforestation, dry weather, and a steep increase in warming–which has warmed by 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit over the last four years.

Why This Matters: If global warming prevents the Amazon from removing atmospheric carbon, the forest could be trapped in a negative feedback loop that will only compound the negative effects of climate change. In addition to carbon sequestration, rainforests release moisture into the air, a process that comprises as much as 35% of the region’s rainfall.

This new study suggests that the areas with the greatest changes had been heavily deforested or burned to clear land for industrial uses. The Amazon is facing compounding threats making an even more urgent case for the world to protect 30% of nature by 2030.

Seeing the Forest For the Trees: The Amazon has been losing its ability to absorb carbon for decades. In 2015, Nature published a 30-year study that showed “a long-term decreasing trend of carbon accumulation,” due to climate change and earlier deaths of trees.

In 2018, an essay in Science Advances suggested that the Amazon was on the edge of turning into a savanna — “The precious Amazon is teetering on the edge of functional destruction and, with it, so are we…We stand exactly in a moment of destiny: The tipping point is here, it is now.”

This new study is the first large-scale measurement of this trend, encompassing different altitudes across thousands of square kilometers, and shows how this change has affected atmospheric carbon. 

That said, the Brazilian government hasn’t shown signs of curbing deforestation in the Amazon. Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, has leveled thousands of square kilometers of the rainforest. The government, under increasing pressure, has recently announced plans to counter the trend, but spikes in deforestation have continued.

However, some think there is still some hope to save the Amazon, even if some changes have been irreversible. Thomas Lovejoy of George Mason University, an author of the “tipping point” essay, told the New York Times: “I don’t think you’ll ever get it back to what it was, but you can certainly improve it.”

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