Mass Tree Deaths Prompt Fears of Amazon 'Climate Tipping Point'

Published on
by
The Guardian/UK

Mass Tree Deaths Prompt Fears of Amazon 'Climate Tipping Point'

Scientists fear billions of tree deaths caused by 2010 drought could see vast forest turn from carbon sink to carbon source

by
Damian Carrington

Aerial view of a drought-affected area within the Amazon basin in Manaus, Brazil. (Photograph: Rodrigo Baleia/LatinContent/Getty Images)

Billions of trees died in the record drought that struck the Amazon in 2010,
raising fears that the vast forest is on the verge of a tipping point,
where it will stop absorbing greenhouse gas emissions and instead
increase them.

The dense forests
of the Amazon soak up more than one-quarter of the world's atmospheric
carbon, making it a critically important buffer against global warming.
But if the Amazon switches from a carbon sink to a carbon source that
prompts further droughts and mass tree deaths, such a feedback loop
could cause runaway climate change, with disastrous consequences.

"Put
starkly, current emissions pathways risk playing Russian roulette with
the world's largest forest," said tropical forest expert Simon Lewis, at the University of Leeds, and who led the research published today in the journal Science. Lewis was careful to note that significant scientific uncertainties remain and that the 2010 and 2005 drought - thought then to be of once-a-century severity - might yet be explained by natural climate variation.

"We
can't just wait and see because there is no going back," he said. "We
won't know we have passed the point where the Amazon turns from a sink
to a source until afterwards, when it will be too late."

Alex
Bowen, from the London School of Economics and Political Science's
Grantham research institute on climate change, said huge emissions of
carbon from the Amazon would make it even harder to keep global
greenhouse gases at a low enough level to avoid dangerous climate
change. "It therefore makes it even more important for there to be
strong and urgent reductions in man-made emissions."

The
revelation of mass tree deaths in the Amazon is a major blow to efforts
to reduce the destruction of the world's forests by loggers, one of the
biggest sources of global carbon emissions. The use of satellite imagery by Brazilian law enforcement teams has drastically cut deforestation rates and replanting in Asia had slowed the net loss. Financial deals to protect forests were one of the few areas on which some progress was made at the 2010 UN climate talks in Cancún.

The 2010 Amazonian drought led to the declaration of states-of-emergencies and the lowest ever level of the major tributary, the Rio Negro. Lewis, with colleagues in Brazil,
examined satellite-derived rainfall measurements and found that the
2010 drought was even worse than the very severe 2005 drought, affecting
a 60% wider area and with an even harsher dry season.

On the
ground, the researchers have 126 one-hectare plots spread across the
Amazon, in which every single tree is tagged and monitored. After 2005,
they counted how many trees had died and worked out how much carbon
would be pumped into the atmosphere as the wood rotted. In addition, the
reduced growth of the water-stressed trees means the forest failed to
absorb the 1.5bn tonnes of carbon that it would in a normal year.

Applying the same principles to the 2010 drought, they estimated that 8.5 billion tonnes of CO2 will be released - more than the entire 7.7bn tonnes emitted in 2009 by China,
the biggest polluting nation in the world. This estimate does not
include forest fires, which release carbon and increase in dry years.

"The Amazon is such a big area that even a small shift [in conditions] there can have a global impact," said Lewis.

Lewis
said that two such severe droughts in the Amazon within five years was
highly unusual, but that a natural variation in climate over decade-long
periods cannot yet be ruled out. The driving factor of the annual
weather patterns is the warmth of the sea in the Atlantic. He said
increasing droughts in the Amazon are found in some climate models,
including the sophisticated model used by the Hadley centre. This means
the 2005 and 2010 droughts are consistent with the idea that global
warming will cause more droughts in future, emit more carbon, and
potentially lead to runaway climate change. "The greenhouse gases we
have already emitted may mean there are several more droughts in the
pipeline," he said.

Lewis said that the 2010 drought killed "in
the low billions of trees", in addition to the roughly 4 billion trees
that die on average in a normal year across the Amazon. The researchers
are now trying to raise £500,000 in emergency funding to revisit the
plots in the Amazon and gather further data.

Brazilian scientist Paulo Brando, from the Instituto de Pesquisa Ambiental da Amazônia
(Amazon Environmental Research Institute), and co-leader of the
research said: "We will not know exactly how many trees were killed
until we can complete forest measurements on the ground. It could be
that many of the drought-susceptible trees were killed off in 2005. Or
the first drought may have weakened a large number of trees so
increasing the number dying in 2010."

Brando added: "Our results
should be seen as an initial estimate. The emissions estimates do not
include those from forest fires, which spread over extensive areas of
the Amazon during hot and dry years and release large amounts of
carbon."

Climate tipping points

Scientists know from the
geological record that the Earth's climate can change rapidly. They have
identified a number of potential tipping points where relatively small
amounts of global warming caused by human activities could cause large
changes in climate. Some tipping points, like the losses to the Amazon
forests, involve positive feedback loops and could lead to runaway
climate change.

Arctic ice cap: The white ice cap is good at reflecting the Sun's warming light back into space. But when it melts, the dark ocean uncovered absorbs this heat. This leads to more melting, and so on.

Tundra: The high north is warming particularly fast, melting the permafrost
that has locked up vast amounts of carbon in soils for thousands of
years. Bacteria digesting the unfrozen soils generate methane, a potent
greenhouse gas, leading to more warming.

Gas hydrates: Also involving methane, this tipping point involves huge reservoirs of methane
frozen on or just below the ocean floor. The methane-water crystals are
close to their melting point and highly unstable. A huge release could
be triggered by a little warming.

West Antarctic ice sheet: Some scientists think this enormous ice sheet,
much of which is below sea level, is vulnerable to small amounts of
warming. If it all eventually melted, sea level would rise by six
metres.

 

Share This Article

More in: