In just 43 years, the once lush Amazon rainforest ecosystem will collapse completely, leaving most of it dry, barren, and lifeless. That is the conclusion of a just-released research report.
A 2018 image showing illegal logging on Pirititi indigenous lands in the Amazon rainforest in 2018. Out-of-control logging is just one of many causes of the rapid destruction of the rainforest. Photo: quapan, CC
A research team headed up by University of Florida geologist Robert Toovey Walker projects that the combination of increased global heating along with out-of-control deforestation and development will kill the Amazon rainforests nearly completely by 2064.
The research was triggered in part by the devastating fires which ravaged the Amazon region in the summer of 2019. That, along with policies in place particularly in Brazil, allowed agricultural, cattle, and mining interests to rip even deeper into the complex ecological web that makes up the Amazon.
The region, which in many ways personifies the entire concept of what a rainforest is, has for millennia been covered by an interlocked canopy of tree limbs at the top. That in turn traps in both heat and moisture, causing rain to fall within the forest from within even when outside the skies may be perfectly clear.
Embedded within that rainforest are micro-ecosystems which are both individually stabilized and interconnected in unique ways. Up until the end of the 20th century, the rain canopy above and the many different ecosystems kept some of the world’s most unusual species of insects, amphibians, birds, mammals, and plant life evolving at rapid rates. Each continued to evolve, often at rapid rates, in an interplay of abundant nature seen nowhere else on Earth.
It was that evolution and the interlocking ecosystems that allowed the Amazon rainforest to be, in a word, resilient. But just as one’s immune system will eventually break when attacked by too strong an illness or infection, so too have the rainforest’s built-in defenses to even the most extreme onslaughts of nature finally begun to break down.
It has done so this time at the hands of all of humanity.
As the research paper notes, a first trigger for what has happened in the Amazon was deforestation, a process which accelerated beginning in the 1970s. As the paper notes, at that time “waves of immigrants initiated a process of agricultural development that to date has consumed about 20% of the Brazilian portion of the original forest”.
That development was exacerbated by mass agricultural expansion, particularly for soybean production. While that has brought financial wealth to the area, it has also permanently disfigured the face of the entire rainforest.
Logging and illegal gold mining are also other major factors contributing to the loss of total forest cover in the Amazon.
All of this has grown even more disastrous under the rule of right-wing moron President Jair Bolsonaro, who has denied all consideration of the seriousness of the climate crisis during his rule. Research study author Walker attacked Bolsonaro and his cronies for “appear[ing] intent on scrapping all remaining restraints on the unfettered exploitation of Amazonia’s natural resources”.
Global heating is of course another major contributor to the onslaught on the rainforest. It has brought with it much longer dry seasons for the region than it had ever experienced before. The falling rainfall pattern was not continuous, but the long-term trend has been quite clear, with “a decline from the mid-1970s to 1990s, a rise from the mid-1990s to 2000, then another decline”. The drop in overall precipitation in recent years is sufficiently stark that an estimate “5.4 million square kilometers, or 69% of the forested part of the Basin” are now suffering from extreme drought which is at least crippling the ecosystems there. Worse still, the “seasonal amplitude” of the effects of that drought are continuing to grow. More days than ever are dry now each year, at a rate the researchers calculated is about 6.5 additional days of drought per decade. Further, when the rain does come, far more water falls daily than in the past. That drives flooding and further destruction of the ecosystems at the base of the rainforest, followed by rapid drying afterwards.
This pattern of deepening drought has brought with it increased “tree mortality arriving from water and thermal stress”. The researchers explain further that, “deforestation [on top of the longer drought effects from global heating] could alter land-surface albedo and the flux of latent heat, thereby compromising the forest’s ability to recycle moisture and sustain the amount of precipitation it needs to survive”.
The rainforest’s ability to recycle water is one of the clear metrics to understand the gravity of what is happening. Within the Amazon, under past normal conditions, recycling of that water has in the past provided between one-fourth to one-half of all rainfall within the forest. As the forest has begun to dry out, a process accelerated by hotter external temperatures and destruction of plant life in the name of development, there has been a corresponding deterioration in what the scientists refer to as the “vapor pressure deficit”. That deficit has increased nearly continuously from 1979 to 2015, and is growing worse even now.
“The best way to think of the forest ecosystem is that it’s a pump,” study lead author Walker said in a recent interview about his team’s work. “The forest recycles moisture, which supports regional rainfall. If you continue to destroy the forest, the rainfall amount drops… and eventually, you wreck the pump.”
The paper concludes that, based on all these factors and carefully calculated projections of the future, the rich Amazon rainforest will by 2064 vanish nearly completely.
Calling what is about to happen a “multidimensional catastrophe”, Walker said the total ecosystem collapse will produce cascading effects currently hard to imagine. Many creatures and plants unique to the rainforest will soon become extinct, with no ability to survive in the rapidly changed climate around them. The Amazon’s role as a major supplier of freshwater for humans, plants, and other creatures will also fade rapidly. With “35 million [calling] the [Amazon] basin home”, as the paper notes, many will simply die without enough to drink.
On top of all, when the rainforest eventually dies, it will no longer be available to act as a carbon sink to ever-increasing carbon dioxide emissions worldwide.
We are killing ourselves. The rainforest may die first but we will be next, without a plan for survival in the future.