Amazon could turn into Savannah, WWF warns

Posted: 22 March 2006

Climate change and deforestation could convert the majority of the Amazon rainforest into Savannah, with massive impacts on the world's biodiversity and climate, WWF said today.

Presenting a review of scientific research on the Amazon and climate change at the 8th UN Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, WWF said that climate-modelling studies are projecting a warmer and drier environment for the region. This was likely lead to a substantial decrease in rainfall over much of the Amazon.

Amazon, illegally logged to clear land for soya plantations. Photo February 2006. © Greenpeace / Daniel Beltra
Amazon, illegally logged to clear land for soya plantations. Photo February 2006. © Greenpeace / Daniel Beltra
A huge area of 1645 hectares in Gleba do Pacoval, 100km from Santarem, Amazon, illegally logged to clear land for soya plantations. Photo February 2006.© Greenpeace / Daniel Beltra
Such changes would result in significant shifts in ecosystem types - from tropical forest to dry savannah - and loss of species in many parts of the Amazon.

"A changing climate poses a substantial threat to the Amazon forests, which contain a large portion of the world's biodiversity. Threats here translate into threats to biodiversity at large," said Beatrix Richards, forests expert at WWF. "The world needs to urgently evaluate vulnerability to climate risks and integrate them into biodiversity conservation efforts."

According to the WWF's survey, the combination of human activities - such as land clearing for agriculture and logging - and climate change increases the drying effect of dead trees that fuels forests fires.

Climate changing

In the absence of effective measures, global warming and deforestation could convert from 30 up to 60 per cent of the Amazon rain forest into a dry savannah, according to research carried out under the auspices of Brazil's National Space Research Institute (INPE).

The climate in northwestern South America, including the Amazon region, has already changed over the last century: For example, the average monthly air temperature records have increased by 0.5-0.8°C from 1990 to 2000.

"We are running a serious risk of losing a large piece of the Amazonian tropical forest," said senior INPE scientist Carlos Nobre. "If warming exceeds a few degrees Celsius, the process of 'savannisation' may well become irreversible."

Currently, the Amazonian forests act as an important sink for carbon dioxide (CO2), a gas emitted mainly from the burning of fossil fuels coal, oil and natural gas, and the major driver of global climate change. However, up to about 20 per cent of CO2 emissions worldwide stem from deforestation - in particular cutting down and burning wood. If its destruction continues, the Amazon rainforest could become a net source of CO2, WWF says.

It believes governments should send a powerful political signal about the need to protect the world's biodiversity and climate. At COP8, countries of the Amazon basin must announce measurable commitments to reduce deforestation. "Both the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation must be urgently and significantly reduced in order to save the world's biodiversity and people from catastrophic climate change," said Giulio Volpi, coordinator of WWF's Climate Change Programme for Latin America and the Caribbean. "Here in Curitiba, there is a unique opportunity to address the deadly combination of deforestation and climate change. Amazon countries need to commit to stop deforestation, for the benefit of present and future generations."