Amazon fires: deforestation has a devastating heating impact on the local climate – new study

Ecocide in the Amazon

By Jess Baker

The Amazon is under threat from all sides. Over recent weeks, unprecedented blazes have spread through an ecosystem not adapted to fire. Much has been made of the consequences of these fires for global heating – but at a local level, the effects could be even more severe.

While it’s too soon to establish the cause of the Amazon fires with certainty, levels of burning and deforestation are closely linked. Cut vegetation is routinely set alight to create cattle ranches and support land claims, in some cases sparking uncontrolled wildfires.

After reaching a record low in 2012, deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon has been rising steadily, and has surged since Jair Bolsonaro became president in January. Recent data shows deforestation from January to August this year was the highest it’s been for a decade, increasing by 75% relative to the same period in 2018. That fires have also not been this extensive for a decade is surely no coincidence.

With its vast store of carbon locked up in trees and soils, the Amazon – and its health – is of huge importance for global heating. There are concerns that emissions from the recent fires could hinder attempts to reach the climate targets set by the Paris Agreement.

But the Amazon is also vital to local communities who depend on its fertile land. Many indigenous peoples have seen their territories invaded and deliberately burned in recent months, jeopardising lives and livelihoods.

Aftermath of burning to clear forest for pasture around the town of Novo Progresso in 2006. This region has been at the epicentre of the 2019 fires. Alexander Lees, Author provided

In this context, there is a pressing need to understand the benefits that intact Amazon forests provide to local populations, in addition to their importance at a global scale. Whilst scientists have been monitoring the global impacts of deforestation and fires for decades, how the Amazon regulates the local climate has not been widely studied.

Local heating

In a new study, my colleague Dominick Spracklen and I investigated how deforestation influences the local Amazonian climate.

We selected areas of intact forest – regions of woodland that haven’t been affected by human disturbance – using the Intact Forest Landscapes maps. These undisturbed forests have lost less than 5% of their canopy cover, confirming their relative stability. We also identified forests that had lost their intact classification because of human disturbance, such as logging and fire.

Using satellite data, we examined climatic changes, particularly in temperature and rainfall, over these large swathes of forest between 2001 and 2013. While local-level rainfall was unaffected, we found that intact forests transfer more water to the atmosphere through a process known as evapotranspiration than areas that have been deforested. Evapotranspiration can be thought of as the forest sweating – as water evaporates from the leaves and the ground it cools the environment.

Less evapotranspiration reduces the cooling capacity of forests and causes local temperatures to rise. While global warming continues to affect all regions of the forest, disturbed forests saw much stronger local warming, with annual temperatures rising by 0.44°C more than neighbouring intact forests over the study period. This may not sound like much, but it equates to approximately half of the warming seen in the region over the last 60 years.

All degraded areas of the Amazon (shown in grey) were included in the research, and compared with neighbouring areas of intact forest (dark green). Jess Baker, Author provided

The effects of deforestation were most pronounced during the dry season, when temperature differences of up to 1.5°C were observed between intact and disturbed forests. This is because water is only available from deep in the soil during the dryer months, inaccessible to the shorter-rooted pasture vegetation that grows once forest has been felled.

Accelerated climate breakdown

Higher temperatures increase the likelihood and intensity of drought during the dry season, as they increase plant demand for moisture at a time when water is already scarce. Increasing temperatures and drought are already shifting the plant composition of the Amazon, and many trees will perish as conditions breach the limits at which they can survive.

Droughts also severely reduce populations of fish, waterfowl and dolphins, and make life increasingly difficult for local people who depend on small-scale agriculture for survival.

Forests also become more susceptible to fires, which in already drier areas can cause almost all of the remaining trees to die. At this point, rainforests become nothing more than low diversity and low carbon ecosystems with a fraction of their current social, ecological and climatic value.

Worse still, evidence suggests that between 3°C and 4°C of warming will be a tipping point for the Amazon, beyond which large parts of the rainforest may switch to a savanna-like state with much poorer capacity to store carbon and support wildlife. Given that we have already reached more than 1°C of warming globally, an extra warming of 1.5°C in the dry season poses a serious threat to the continued existence of these degraded rainforests.

Intact tropical forests are crucially important, not just for global heating, but for the local climate too. In his haste to economise the Amazon, Bolsonaro would do well to remember that.


Disclosure statement

Jess Baker receives funding from the European Research Council and was formerly funded by the Newton Fund via the Met Office Climate Science for Service Partnership Brazil.


University of Leeds provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation UK.

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Burned land Thursday near the city of Porto Velho, Brazil.CreditCreditVictor Moriyama for The New York Times

Climate change and man-made fires could set off a cycle of self-perpetuating deforestation, scientists warn.

Climate change, along with the fires and other man-made forces, appear on the verge of triggering a significant change in the Amazon’s weather system.

No one knows for sure whether and when this might happen, though some scientists who study the Amazon ecosystem call it imminent. If it does happen, a body of research suggests, the Amazon as a whole would cross a tipping point and begin to self-destruct — a process of self-perpetuating deforestation known as dieback.

If that is left unchecked, half or more of the rainforest could erode into savanna, according to some estimates, and then the rainforest, which has long absorbed the world’s greenhouse gases, could instead begin to emit them.

The Amazon’s plant life stores an estimated 100 billion tons of carbon. By comparison, every coal plant worldwide combined emitted 15 billion tons of carbon in 2017. So even if only a small proportion of the trees destroyed by large-scale deforestation burn, this longtime buffer against climate change could instead become a driver of it.

A continentwide transformation remains theoretical, and is still debated by scientists. But some believe that the Amazon could pass this tipping point soon, or may have already.

Asked for a best guess as to when the Amazon might cross that threshold, Thomas Lovejoy, a prominent environmental scientist, said that he and another scientist based in Brazil, Carlos Nobre, had independently arrived at the same estimate: 20 to 25 percent deforestation.

The number was a “hip shot,” Dr. Lovejoy said. And deforestation alone would not set off the cycle, but was shorthand for a more complex set of drivers.

The Brazilian government’s own estimate for deforestation of the Amazon stands at 19.3 percent, though some scientists consider this an undercount.

“It’s close,” Dr. Lovejoy said. “It’s really close.”

Burned areas surrounded a road near the city of Porto Velho in Rondônia state.CreditVictor Moriyama for The New York Times

The world may one day look back and find the warnings of ecological catastrophe embedded in research papers like one led by Jennifer Balch, an expert on fire.

Before Jair Bolsonaro became president of Brazil and oversaw this summer’s drastic increase in man-made fires in the Amazon rainforest, Dr. Balch and her colleagues set out to study what was then a rarer phenomenon.

They subjected plots of rainforest to a decade of small but repeated fires like those set by farmers, and they found something alarming. After enough cycles, even if the fires caused only moderate damage, if rainfall dropped, the trees began dying off in huge numbers.

The proportion of plant life that died after a fire suddenly spiked from 5 or 10 percent to 60 percent — sudden ecological death.

“We were able to document that, yes, the Amazon does have a tipping point,” Dr. Balch said of her team’s experiment, which is still going on. “And it can happen in a very short period of time.”

But what most disturbed the scientists was how this phenomenon seemed to fit into a larger cycle — one that implicated the rainforest as a whole.

That cycle is triggered by four forces, all but one of them man-made: roads, fires, invasive grasses and climate change.

Roads, along with other forms of construction, fragment the rainforest, leaving each acre of plant life less able to endure a fire or resist its spread.

“As fragmentation is happening, you’re exposing a lot more forest edges,” Dr. Balch said. Those edges are more susceptible to drying out and other dangers.

Invasive grasses are one of those dangers, lingering at forest edges. Even a small fire can wipe out a rainforest’s undergrowth. Then grasses rush in, setting a blanket of dry, flammable plant life — and making the next fire far more damaging.

Climate change, by heating the Amazon, has made its dry seasons dryer and more hospitable to those grasses. As fires clear undergrowth, they carve out new, vulnerable forest edges and dry out forests, exacerbating the effects of climate change.

But what makes those forces so dangerous is not that they kill trees — it’s that they reduce rainfall.

In a healthy rainforest, plant life absorbs rainwater and groundwater, then sweats it back out into the atmosphere as moisture, seeding more rain. But once a section of rainforest has been thinned and fragmented, it gives off less moisture. Rainfall decreases, and the ground, of course, grows drier.

As a result, the next fire burns hotter and reaches deeper, causing more damage. Past a certain point, the forest no longer produces enough rain to survive.

“There’s already evidence that this can take place on phenomenal scales,” said Daniel Nepstad, an environmental scientist who studies the Amazon. “This is the imminent risk that could overshadow deforestation as a risk to this forest.”

Dieback occurs when each of these elements — fires, invasive grasses, reduced rainfall — trigger a chain reaction, acting like the components of a combustion engine.

That cycle is supercharged at every stage by climate change. That means the sudden death that Dr. Balch’s team observed in a few isolated plots could play out across the rainforest as a whole.

Repeated studies have found that deforestation leads to reductions in rainfall — and can even extend the annual dry season by a full month. There are already indications that Amazon deforestation will lead to catastrophic reductions in rainfall.

study led by Claudia Stickler, an environmental economist, projected that, under current rates of deforestation in the area around Brazil’s Belo Monte hydroelectric dam, rainfall will decline so precipitously that the dam will generate only 60 percent of its planned output.

“If you talk to indigenous groups, they all say that rainfall has changed,” Dr. Nepstad said. “This is, to me, what we need to be focused on.”


Burned rainforest in the Amazon.CreditVictor Moriyama for The New York Times

There are two prevailing theories for what might happen past the Amazon’s tipping point.

One is that cycles of destruction will play out only where damage is most severe. Over time, each acre of rainforest that is dried out or destroyed would put neighboring areas at greater risk, potentially accelerating as it spreads. But dieback in one stretch need not necessarily put the entire rainforest at risk.

In the more dire scenario, enough disruptions could upend the Amazon’s weather system as a whole, eventually transforming the region from rainforest into savanna.

No one knows for sure whether this is possible, much less likely. But Dr. Lovejoy, the environmental scientist, underscored that rain and weather patterns are continental — and rely on a full, healthy Amazon.

“The models, and they’re pretty consistent,” he said, “suggest that the combination of fire and climate change and deforestation will weaken the hydrological cycle of the Amazon to the point where you just get insufficient rainfall in the south and the east, and then part of the central Amazon, to actually support a rainforest.”

In either scenario, the Amazon is thought to be approaching a point past which it will begin driving its own destruction.

Scientists stress that the cycle, if caught early, could feasibly be stopped. But, once it begins, it would most likely only accelerate.

“It really makes no sense to figure out precisely where the tipping point is by tipping it,” Dr. Lovejoy said.


The Amazon rainforest near Porto Velho, Brazil, this week.CreditVictor Moriyama for The New York Times

In the late 1990s, a team at the University of Exeter tested an idea that was considered somewhat contrarian.

Could the Amazon rainforest — one of the world’s greatest absorbers of greenhouse gases, and therefore buffers against climate change — become a driver of climate change instead?

They designed a computer simulation to test whether trees might someday die in sufficient numbers as to put more carbon into the atmosphere than the healthy trees sucked up.

The simulation spit out a year: 2050. That was when the rainforest would become a net emitter of greenhouse gasses. The findings were heavily debated.

As the warning signs of large-scale dieback have mounted, more scientists have come to see that scenario as a threat not just to the Amazon’s inhabitants and Brazil’s economy, but to a world already struggling to confront climate change.

“It’s a lot of carbon,” Dr. Lovejoy said. “It’s a really big number.”

And it’s not just the Amazon.

“This is a global phenomenon,” said Dr. Balch, who has studied grasslands in the United States that could pose a similar threat. Dr. Nepstad said that he had found warning signs in the rainforests of Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Dr. Lovejoy compared this moment to the years before the onset of the Dust Bowl, in which mismanagement and drought turned American plains states into wastelands during the 1930s.

“Nobody really saw that coming,” he said. “The difference between then and now is we do see it coming and we know enough not to do it.”

The Interpreter is a column by Max Fisher and Amanda Taub exploring the ideas and context behind major world events. Follow them on Twitter @Max_Fisher and @amandataub.