A bigger part of the Amazon rainforest than previously thought could cross a tipping point where it becomes a savanna-type ecosystem. A new study found that up to 66% of the luscious canopy rainforest could turn into open grassland as emissions grow, and deforestation continues. Climate crisis and logging have led to possibly 40% of the Amazon existing as either rainforest or savanna-like ecosystems.
The researchers’ approach using computer models and data analysis enabled them to explore how the rainforest responds to changing rainfall. Their focus was to evaluate the stability of tropical rainforests around the world, including the Amazon. In such regions, if rain falls below a certain threshold, it alters the entire ecosystem dramatically.
Unfortunately, the Amazon rainforest is now receiving less rain than before. As the planet continues to warm, it could cause rainfall to drop further still. If it goes below the threshold required to maintain the rainforest, many areas may shift into a savanna state and never recover. Savanna doesn’t have many trees and won’t help much in the fight against climate change.
Other research estimated that the switch was decades away, and we still had time to save the Amazon. However, that’s moot since almost half of the forest is not in limbo. The full shift from rainforest to grassland would take decades, but once it’s underway, the process is hard to reverse. Rainforests are essential as they play a significant role in absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
The researchers warn that even the most resilient parts of the rainforest would shrink. Co-author Lan Wang-Erlandsson said:
If we removed all the trees in the Amazon in a high-emissions scenario, a much smaller area would grow back than would be the case in the current climate.
Co-author Ingo Fetzer added:
We understand now that rainforests on all continents are very sensitive to global change and can rapidly lose their ability to adapt. Once gone, their recovery will take many decades to return to their original state. And given that rainforests host the majority of all global species, all this will be forever lost.
Yet, the Amazon rainforest continues to be destroyed by loggers and fire, bringing the region even closer and faster to the tipping point. Last year’s fires were the worst in a decade, but somehow this year, they’re even worse with a 60% increase in fire hotspots.
But there are some people really trying hard to save it. For example, the Science Panel for the Amazon – consisting of 150 international scientists – is bringing together all the existing scientific research on the Amazon biome and developing solutions and policy suggestions with the facts to back it up. Hopefully, they’ll make an impact!
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