Conservation and Biodiversity

The Amazon rainforest is on fire. Here’s what’s at stake

The world’s largest rainforest, the Amazon, is on fire.

The National Institute of Space Research recorded nearly 73,000 fires in the Amazon between January and August this year, more than twice as many as all of 2018. NASA satellites showed images of smoke swept across the greened terrain of Brazil. That same smoke blackened the skies of São Paulo, 1,700 miles away.

Obviously, this doesn’t bode well for the planet. But besides trees literally up in flames, there’s much more happening under the surface.

It’s the dry season in the Amazon, meaning the rainforest is more susceptible to fires. But these fires aren’t freak accidents; they’re often started intentionally. Farmers clear land for cattle ranching and miners do the same for their operations. The more the land is deforested, though, the more vulnerable the rainforest is in the long run.

“When farmers extensively use fire to clear land, it penetrates into the surrounding forest and dries it out,” says Thomas Lovejoy, senior fellow at the United Nations Foundation and member of Earth Day Network’s Global Advisory Committee. “This means that when you’re burning again next year, the forest catches fire.”

With climate change and historic levels of draught, it’s no wonder the Amazon is up in flames.

But these fires are only part of the larger, complicated puzzle of the Amazon and its threats.

Because trees absorb carbon dioxide, the Amazon is the world’s largest land carbon sink. When trees burn, however, they release all that stored carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Through fires like these, the Amazon transforms from a carbon sink to a carbon source, and if that happens, the Amazon stops slowing global warming — and starts contributing to it.

David Wallace-Wells, in his book Uninhabitable Earth, calls these effects cascades, with climate catastrophes building on each other. “Higher temperatures means more forest fires means fewer trees means less carbon absorption, means more carbon in the atmosphere, means a hotter planet still—and so on,” he writes.

These cascading effects don’t just affect climate and air — the Amazon produces 20 percent of the world’s oxygen — but also water. Twenty percent of the world’s river water is in the Amazon. The Amazon rainforest is so large that it has its own hydraulic cycle, recycling the same water five to six times between the Atlantic and the Andes, says Lovejoy.

If we continue to lose the Amazon to forest fires, we don’t just alter this water cycle and pollute the air; we lose the one of the world’s largest, most diverse homes for plant and animal wildlife. A ravaged landscape devoid of these creatures presents a grim portrait, especially juxtaposed with the role of the Amazon as a rich habitat for countless species up and down the food chain, from cougars to caterpillars.

Lovejoy defines this variety of nature as biological diversity. As he sees it, biological diversity is invariably connected to climate change and a healthy environment.

“Biological diversity basically integrates all environmental problems,” he says. “It can be affected directly by habitat destruction or hunting. But everything else we’re doing with it — climate change or pesticides — ends up impacting biological diversity.”

The recent fires put all these working parts in jeopardy. But that doesn’t mean we’re hopeless.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently outlined the steps we need to take for a more sustainable future. Many of the effects of climate change can be slowed by more productive and sustainable agriculture practices, less food waste and more plant-based diets (beef is a major driver of deforestation, especially in the Amazon). Learn more about how to build a sustainable environment and food system at Earth Day Network’s campaign Foodprints for the Future.

Though we’ve lost much of the Amazon to deforestation, we’ve also preserved much of it in recent years. Today, nearly half of the Amazon is dedicated to conservation units or indigenous areas. Considering that only one conservation park in the entire Amazon existed fifty years ago, we’ve come a long way. We just need to keep going. The future of the Amazon — and the planet — depends on it.

Featured image at top: A satellite view of the Amazon’s fires. Photo credit: NOAA.