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Amazon deforestation

A farmer carries a chainsaw after cutting down trees to plant coca in the Amazon rainforest in Guaviare department, Colombia, on December 6, 2021. (Photo: Raul Arboleda/ AFP via Getty Images)

Study Warns of 'Profound' Consequences as Amazon Nears 'Tipping Point'

New research reveals lost rainforest resiliency imperils biodiversity, carbon storage, and the climate "at a global scale."

Brett Wilkins

The ability of the Amazon rainforest to recover from devastating droughts and wildfires has been declining over the past two decades, driving the crucial ecosystem to what authors of a study published Monday called a "critical transformation" with "profound" consequences.

The research, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, revealed that the world's largest rainforest "has been losing resilience since the early 2000s, risking dieback with profound implications for biodiversity, carbon storage, and climate change at a global scale" as rainforest irreversibly transforms to savanna.

Satellite imagery analyzed by the study's researchers revealed that over three-quarters of the Amazon is losing resilience. Chris Boulton, a climate scientist at the University of Exeter and a co-author of the report, told Inside Climate News that resilience is defined as "the ability of the Amazon rainforest to restore itself back to a stable state."

According to the site:

The study adds to a mounting pile of research projecting that the Amazon will reach a point when it rapidly converts into a different, drier ecosystem, although the timing of this "tipping point" remains uncertain and whether it will encompass the entire rainforest is also debated. The authors of the new study have said the change could come within decades. They were reluctant to be more specific, but said the tipping point could be sooner even than current models suggest.

"The core idea is, if the system is heading toward a tipping point, where by definition it's getting less stable, this means that before that happens, it gets slower recovering from all these perturbations, like the drought events that are happening year to year," said Tim Lenton, another University of Exeter climate scientist and study co-author.

"If it gets to that tipping point and we commit to losing the Amazon rainforest, then we get significant feedback to global climate change," he continued. "We'd lose about 90 billion tons of carbon dioxide, mostly from the trees and some from the soil, and that's several years of emissions."

Lenton added that such a development would have "knock-on effects elsewhere in the world."

The new study notes that "deforestation and climate change, via increasing dry-season length and drought frequency, may already have pushed the Amazon close to a critical threshold of rainforest dieback."

"Other factors, including rising atmospheric temperatures in response to anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, may additionally have negative effects on Amazon resilience," the publication adds.

According to The Guardian, "areas closer to human destruction of the forest also became more unstable. Trees are crucial in producing rain, so felling them to clear land for beef and soy production creates a vicious circle of drier conditions and more tree loss."

The good news, say researchers, is that the Amazon's tipping point has not yet been reached.

"So there's hope," said Lenton, who added that the new study's findings should encourage "efforts to reverse deforestation and degradation of the Amazon to give it back some resilience against ongoing climate change."

Under right-wing Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro—the self-proclaimed "Captain Chainsaw"—deforestation in the country containing approximately 60% of the Amazon rainforest has reached its highest levels in more than a decade.

"We have a narrow window of opportunity to take urgent action."

The Brazilian Amazon ecosystem, as well as the nearly million Indigenous people from over 300 tribes who live there, are under increasing threat from development including logging, mining, expansion of agricultural activity, and the construction of a major highway and dam.

While the crisis is most pronounced in Brazil, it is also occurring in other Amazon nations and territories including Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Suriname, and French Guiana.

Chris Jones, a climate researcher at the Met Office Hadley Centre in Britain who was not involved in the new study, told The Guardian that "this research adds compelling evidence that climate change is a risk now and that these severe and irreversible impacts could become a reality."

"We have a narrow window of opportunity to take urgent action," he stressed.

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