The Amazon Has Reached a Tipping Point Where It Has Begun to 'Self-destruct'—But Major Reforestation Could Save It

The Amazon has reached a "tipping point" where the rainforest has begun to self-destruct—and a "major reforestation project" is required to save it, according to the editors of a leading scientific journal.

In an editorial, Thomas Lovejoy and Carlos Nobre wrote that deforestation and fires are increasingly threatening the functioning of the rainforest, hampering its ability to act as a crucial carbon sink, a stronghold of biodiversity and critical link in the global water cycle.

"Although 2019 was not the worst year for fire or deforestation in the Amazon, it was the year when the extent of fires and deforestation in the region garnered full global attention," the authors wrote in the Science Advances editorial. "The precious Amazon is teetering on the edge of functional destruction and, with it, so are we."

In many parts of the Amazon, deforestation—which now affects around 17 percent of the basin—is helping to convert the landscape in many areas into tropical savannah, hindering the forest's ability to sustain itself by producing its own rainfall.

"Researchers predict that deforestation will lead to developing savannahs mainly in the eastern and southern Amazon, perhaps extending into central and southwestern areas, because these zones are naturally close to the minimum amount of rainfall required for the rain forest to thrive," the authors wrote.

This process is being exacerbated by human-driven global warming which is leading to reduced rainfall and increased temperatures in the region.

The authors say there are already signs the tipping point is "at hand": for example, a lengthening and hotter dry season, periodic historically unprecedented droughts and the shifting composition of tree species towards those which favor drier climates.

Studies are showing that the role of the Amazon as a carbon sink is declining over time as deforestation spreads—a process that will have significant implications for global warming.

"The atmospheric carbon dioxide removal rate has declined over percent in comparison to the 1990s," Nobre—a member of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences from the University of Sao Paulo—told Newsweek. "The occurrence of a sequence of very severe droughts in 2006, 2010 and 2015-16 also increased tree mortality and emission rates. Considering removals and emissions—including deforestation and fires—the Amazon has moved from being a relevant sink to being a source of about 400 million tons of carbon dioxide in the last decade."

Furthermore, the destruction of the Amazon would also harm its role as a provider of freshwater for every country in South America—except for Chile, which is blocked by the Andes mountains.

"Bluntly put, the Amazon not only cannot withstand further deforestation but also now requires rebuilding as the underpinning base of the hydrological cycle if the Amazon is to continue to serve as a flywheel of continental climate for the planet and an essential part of the global carbon cycle as it has for millennia," the authors wrote.

Amazon rainforest deforestation
View of a burnt area near Moraes Almeida—a town along a section of the trans-Amazonian highway—in Itaituba, Para state, Brazil, on September 14, 2019. The BR230 and BR163 are major transport routes in Brazil that have played a key role in the development and destruction of the world's largest rainforest. NELSON ALMEIDA/AFP via Getty Images

In order to "build back a margin of safety," Lovejoy and Nobre recommend a "major reforestation project," particularly in the southern and eastern Amazon.

"Any additional increment of deforestation should be matched by three times as much reforestation, with details tailored at national levels," they said. "Citizens and leaders across South America and around the world must create and promote a new vision of the Amazon, one that recognizes that the natural and economic assets of the region must be managed to maintain its essential role for South America and in sustaining the health of the planet."

"This new vision will need to respect and protect its natural infrastructure and include a thoughtful review of all related commercial activities."

This new vision would require putting a stop to "illogical and short-sighted" agricultural practices such as monocultures of cattle, soybeans and sugarcane. Instead, the authors advocate sensible use of intact forests, the harnessing of power from its massive flowing rivers, or the sustainable harvesting of biological assets.

But how successful could such measures be when it comes to stopping or reversing the destruction being wrought in the Amazon, especially given the apparent lack of concern of the Brazilian government—whose territory hosts the majority of the forest.

"If the matter is taken with the seriousness it deserves—and it is recognized the Amazon must be managed as a system—then it should be possible," Lovejoy—a professor in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy at George Mason University—told Newsweek. "We don't believe the current [Brazilian] government is interested in going down in history as the administration which tipped the system into dieback/savannahization."

Nobre added: "All the Amazonian countries have forest restoration in their commitments towards reaching the Paris agreement targets. For instance, Brazil intends to restore 12 million hectares of forest by 2030. The big open question is still the financing of such activities and progress was not achieved at the 25th U.N. Climate Change Conference on how to fund such urgent mitigation actions."

The authors conclude the article by arguing that we currently stand in a "moment of destiny."

"The tipping point is here, it is now," they wrote. "The peoples and leaders of the Amazon countries together have the power, the science, and the tools to avoid a continental-scale, indeed, a global environmental disaster. Together, we need the will and imagination to tip the direction of change in favor of a sustainable Amazon."