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With scientists confirming that parts of the Amazon rainforest now emit more carbon than they can absorb, a landmark report is warning that more than 10,000 Amazonian species are at high risk of extinction due to habitat destruction.
“Having the most productive carbon absorber on the planet switch from a sink to a source means we have to eliminate fossil fuels faster than we thought,” said Colorado State University atmospheric scientist Scott Denning.
Produced by the Science Panel for the Amazon (SPA) and bringing together the work of more than 200 scientists, the biodiversity report offers “the most detailed assessment of the state of the forest to date and makes clear the vital role the Amazon plays in global climate and the profound risks it is facing,” writes CBC News. The study appeared last week in the journal Nature.
“The report said the continued destruction caused by human interference in the Amazon puts more than 8,000 endemic plants and 2,300 animals at high risk of extinction,” CBC explains. The researchers call for “massive restoration of already destroyed areas,” which together encompass some 35% of the Amazon’s total area. About half of that area has been totally deforested, and half has suffered massive degradation.
In an SPA statement, University of Brasilia professor Mercedes Bustamante said the climate crisis and biodiversity decline together pose “potentially irreversible and catastrophic risks” to humanity, notes Reuters. She warned that the “window of opportunity” to shift that outcome is narrowing.
“The fate of the Amazon is central to the solution to the global crises,” she said.
The report sets in sharp relief the extent to which the fate of humanity is intertwined with that of the Amazon, CBC writes, noting that “soil and vegetation of the Amazon hold about 200 billion tonnes of carbon, more than five times the world’s annual CO2 emissions.” But an eight-year study led by Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research reveals that this same soil and vegetation has come under particularly savage threat since the rise of right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro, aka “Capitão Motoserra” (Captain Chainsaw). It is now emitting more carbon than it can absorb, The Guardian says.
Using small aircraft, the researchers took 600 vertical profiles—reaching up to 4,500 metres above the forest floor—measuring carbon dioxide and monoxide levels at four separate sites between 2010 and 2018. The researchers found that forest growth has been able to remove only half a billion tonnes of the CO2 now generated annually by the Amazon, leaving another billion to spew into the atmosphere—a volume “equivalent to the annual emissions of Japan, the world’s fifth-biggest polluter,” The Guardian notes.
Much—but not all—of the impact is coming from fires, many of them set deliberately to advance the fortunes of beef and soy interests.
As for the rest, the researchers were particularly worried to discover that the southeastern part of the Amazon is emitting carbon even in the absence of fires, a symptom of an ecosystem ravaged by fierce heat and prolonged drought.
“Fewer trees meant less rain and higher temperatures, making the dry season even worse for the remaining forest,” the UK-based paper states, citing lead researcher Luciana Gatti.
Describing the aerial research effort as “heroic,” Denning said the study proves that the southeastern Amazon forest “is no longer growing faster than it’s dying”—meaning that fast action is critical.