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The Amazon rainforest is approaching widespread collapse 

The Amazon rainforest, often referred to as the lungs of our planet, is edging closer to a critical tipping point that could trigger a widespread ecological collapse with far-reaching implications for the global climate system.

This dire warning comes from an international team of researchers, including experts from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK).

The study reveals a harrowing scenario in which up to 47 percent of the Amazonian forest could be lost, underscoring the urgent need for global and local action.

Multiple stressors on the Amazon rainforest

“The Southeastern Amazon has already shifted from a carbon sink to a source – meaning that the current amount of human pressure is too high for the region to maintain its status as a rainforest over the long term,” said study co-author Boris Sakschewski.

“But the problem doesn’t stop there. Since rainforests enrich the air with a lot of moisture which forms the basis of precipitation in the west and south of the continent, losing forest in one place can lead to losing forest in another in a self-propelling feedback loop or simply ‘tipping.’”

The researchers pinpointed the multifaceted stressors weakening the Amazon’s resilience, including increased temperatures, droughts, deforestation, and fires. 

By 2050, these disturbances are expected to threaten up to 47 percent of Amazonian forests, edging them closer to a tipping point beyond which recovery might be impossible. 

The researchers identified five critical drivers of this tipping point: global warming, annual rainfall amounts, rainfall seasonality intensity, dry season length, and accumulated deforestation. 

Far-reaching impact of the Amazon rainforest

The experts propose safe boundaries for these drivers to prevent crossing the tipping point, such as maintaining mean annual rainfall above 1000 mm to ensure the rainforest’s existence.

“We found for example that for mean annual rainfall below 1,000 mm per year, the Amazon rainforest cannot exist. However, below 1,800 mm per year, abrupt transitions from rainforest to a Savanna-like vegetation become possible. This can be triggered by individual droughts or forest fires, which both have become more frequent and more severe in recent years,” explained study co-author Da Nian.

The study also highlights the broader impacts of Amazon forest loss on global warming and regional precipitation patterns. The flows of atmospheric moisture from the Amazon, known as “flying rivers,” are essential for the South American Monsoon system and, by extension, rainfall across the continent. 

Furthermore, the carbon stored in the Amazon, equivalent to 15-20 years of current human CO2 emissions, underscores the global stakes of preserving this rainforest.

Study lead author Bernardo Flores raised concerns about the compounding disturbances within the Amazon’s core. 

“Compounding disturbances are increasingly common within the core of the Amazon,” said Flores. “If these disturbances act in synergy, we may observe unexpected ecosystem transitions in areas previously considered as resilient, such as the moist forests of the western and central Amazon.” 

Self-reinforced forest loss

The researchers investigated the consequences of disturbed forests across the Amazon, noting that some areas might recover but remain in a degraded state, while others may transition to an open-canopy, flammable state, exacerbating the spread of fires. 

“We have evidence showing that rising temperatures, extreme droughts and fires can affect how the forest functions and change which tree species can integrate the forest system,” said study co-author Dr. Adriane Esquivel-Muelbert.

“With the acceleration of global change there’s an increasing likelihood that we will see positive feedback loops in which, rather than being able to repair itself, the forest loss becomes self-reinforced.” 

The study is published in the journal Nature.


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