The pristine Amazon rainforest is one of the world’s most important carbon sinks.
One of the planet's most important natural treasures, the Amazon rainforest, may be at a point of catastrophic change, due to the same phenomenon that causes hurricanes in North America.
New research led by NASA has found that the Amazon rainforest is reeling from eight years of devastating “megadrought”. This megadrought began in 2005, and the trees became so damaged that when the next drought started in 2010, they still hadn’t full recovered. It’s believed that the drought was caused by abnormally high Atlantic sea surface temperatures (warmer ocean temperatures also generate active Atlantic hurricane seasons). This has left an enormous area of the Amazon experiencing devastatingly dry conditions.
The magnitude of the drought is astounding. Over 30 percent of the Amazon Basin (656,370 square miles) was affected in 2005, and 50 percent in 2010. Head of the NASA research team Sassan Saatchi explains that if climate change is fueling more frequent and severe drought events, “this may alter the structure and function of Amazonian rainforest ecosystems.”
Some climate models suggest that if cycles of extreme drought continue, portions of the Amazon may more closely resemble a savannah, with significantly less biodiversity.
The consequences of the Amazon's megadrought extend far beyond its immediate geographic boundaries. The Amazon is a vital “carbon sink”, a rich repository of lush vegetation that absorbs a huge amount of global carbon dioxide emissions. Yet in 2010, the Amazon may have produced as much CO2 as the US releases annually due to the trees dying off. The megadrought has probably nullified nearly a decade’s worth of the Amazon’s global carbon sinking capacity – a development with tremendous implications for global climate change.
Some climate models even suggest that repetitive drought cycles could transform part of the Amazon rainforest into a savannah-like environment, with greatly diminished biodiversity. Already, the drought has endangered species such as the pink river dolphin. Severe drought also means increased risk of fires, threatening indigenous communities and making slash-and-burn agricultural practices even more devastating.
Severe drought has increased the fire risk from slash-and-burn agriculture in the Amazon.
There are many initiatives underway to help address the complex consequences of the Amazon’s megadrought. Integrated teams of indigenous peoples, cattle ranchers and international smoke jumpers have conducted joint firefighting missions. Organizations such as Amazon Watch and the Amazon Conservation Team work to champion indigenous rights, protect biodiversity, and halt deforestation efforts. And organizations like Institute Barca conduct in-depth fieldwork throughout the region to focus on capacity-building and enhancing climate security.
The outcome of efforts to build resilience in the drying Amazon is critical. As stated starkly by researcher Simon Lewis of Leeds University, current climate and emissions trends risk “playing Russian roulette with a substantial portion of the world's largest rainforest.”