Amazon rainforest withers and burns amid hot, dry conditions

When a satellite detected a historic day of fires in the Amazon back in August 2022, Greenpeace explained that “it’s important to understand that fires are not a natural phenomenon in the Amazon rainforest.”

Last month, scientists said up to half of the Amazon rainforest could hit a tipping point by 2050 from water stress, land clearance, and climate disruption. AFP/Getty Images photo by Carlos De Souza.

This article was published by The Energy Mix on April 8, 2024.

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Historic drought and elevated temperatures are causing large swathes of the Amazon rainforest to go up in flames and produce record emissions, despite progress made by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to reduce deforestation in Brazil.

We are losing the Amazon rainforest,” said Marcio Astrini, executive secretary of Brazil’s Climate Observatory. “These changes in the climate right now provoked by El Niño makes this forest fire season even worse than we are used to seeing in the forest.”

“In Roraima State, in northern Brazil, the number of fires in February were more than five times the average, according to data from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, and blazes continued to burn through March,” reports CBC News. El Niño weather and climate change have “supercharged” wildfire conditions in a typically lush and humid rainforest.

Experts say trees respond to the hot, dry conditions by dropping leaves, increasing the accumulated combustible matter on the forest floor. And as canopies thin, they become more open to dry winds that displace the moist air of the forest’s microclimate, making the forest more prone to burning.

When a satellite detected a historic day of fires in the Amazon back in August 2022, Greenpeace explained that “it’s important to understand that fires are not a natural phenomenon in the Amazon rainforest.”

“Generally, untouched, moist rainforests do not burn,” the group said, adding that Brazil’s president at the time, Jair Bolsonaro, had “catalyzed historic burning and deforestation by emboldening land grabbers and dismantling the agencies responsible for environmental protection.”

President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Lula) took office in January, 2023 after promising in his campaign to address rainforest loss. His policies since then have brought deforestation rates down 22 per cent compared to Bolsonaro’s tenure, with logging rates reduced by roughly half.

But the hot weather still spells bad news for the Amazon, which is one of the world’s largest carbon sinks. High wildfire intensity was also observed in the northern Amazon rainforest by the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS) run by the European Union. The fires caused an estimated 4.1 megatons of carbon emissions, the highest ever recorded for February since at least 2003, “not only for Roraima but for Brazil as whole,” writes Copernicus. “Other countries in South America, such as Venezuela and Bolivia, are also experiencing the highest emissions since 2003 for the same period.”

Particulate pollution from the rainforest fires is comparable to what the Canadian wildfires brought last summer, though public outcry over health concerns has not been the same.

Indigenous peoples in the Amazon are breathing in the smoke and feeling a “huge change” this year, said an Indigenous leader, Cesar Da Silva. “The air and the humidity is very low and this has also led to problems with illnesses in families, especially in children.”

Other countries that the rainforest extends into showed mixed levels of forest loss, as higher rates of tree felling and fires offset Lula’s progress in Brazil. Bolivia showed record forest loss for the third year in a row, with a 27 per cent increase from 2022.

But in Colombia, primary forest loss in 2023 was reduced by about 50 per cent from 2022, partly thanks to the actions of President Gustavo Petro Urrego. “The story of deforestation in Colombia is complex and deeply intertwined with the country’s politics, which makes 2023’s historic decrease particularly powerful,” said Alejandra Laina of the World Resources Institute, Colombia.

“There is no doubt that recent government action and the commitment of the communities has had a profound impact on Colombia’s forests, and we encourage those involved in current peace talks to use this data as a springboard to accelerate further progress.”

Last month, scientists said up to half of the Amazon rainforest could hit a tipping point by 2050 from water stress, land clearance, and climate disruption, The Guardian reported.

 

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