Climate changes could destroy much of the Amazon

Posted: 5 December 2007

New predictions show that the destruction of the Amazon forest is speeding up, through a vicious feedback loop between climatic change and deforestation that could wipe out or severely damage nearly 60 per cent of the forest by 2030.

Fire in the Amazon
Fire in the Amazon
Current trends in agriculture and livestock expansion, fire, drought, and logging could clear or severely damage 55 per cent of the Amazon rainforest by the year 2030. Photo © WWF
The dramatic consequences of climate change faced by the Amazon and the livelihoods of people in the region are set out in a report from WWF, released at the Bali climate conference.

From now to 2030, deforestation in the Amazon could release 55.5 to 96.9 billion tons of CO2. At the upper end this is more than two years of global greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, the destruction of the Amazon would also do away with one of the key stabilisers of the global climate system. "The importance of the Amazon forest for the globe's climate cannot be underplayed," says Dan Nepstad, Senior Scientist at the Woods Hole Research Centre in Massachusetts, and author of the report. "It's not only essential for cooling the world's temperature but also such a large source of freshwater that it may be enough to influence some of the great ocean currents, and on top of that it's a massive store of carbon."

The report shows that current trends in agriculture and livestock expansion, fire, drought, and logging could clear or severely damage 55 per cent of the Amazon rainforest by 2030. However, scientists predictthat levels of drought will be exacerbated by a decline in rainfall of about 10 per cent within this timeframe - damaging an additional four per cent of the forests.

Declining rainfall

By the end of the century global warming is in fact likely to reduce rainfall in the Amazon by more than 20 per cent, especially in the eastern Amazon. This would lead to an increase in local temperatures of more than 2°C, and perhaps by as much as 8°C, during the second half of the century.

At the UN climate change talks reducing emissions from deforestation will be high up on the agenda. WWF is promoting solutions in the Amazon such as minimizing the negative impacts from cattle ranching and infrastructure projects, and rapidly expanding the existing network of protected areas.

"The Amazon is on a knife edge due to the dual threats of deforestation and climate change," said Beatrix Richards, head of forests at WWF-UK. "Developed countries have a key role to play in throwing a lifeline to forests around the world. At the international negotiations currently underway in Bali governments must agree a process which results in ambitious global emission reduction targets beyond the current phase of Kyoto which ends in 2012. Crucially this must include a strategy to reduce emissions from forests and help break the cycle of deforestation."

Climate change is initiating and speeding up the vicious circle: already today carbon from forest conversion to cattle pastures and agriculture in the Brazilian Amazon is seeping into the atmosphere at a rate of 0.2 to 0.3 billion tons per year. This number can double when severe drought increases forest fires.

Note: The Amazon forests store 90-140 billion tons of carbon, equivalent to 9-14 years of current global, annual human induced carbon emissions.

For more information on the report 'The Amazon's Vicious Cycles: Drought and Fire in the Greenhouse' or to download it, go here.For more information on WWF's work in the Amazon see www.wwf.org.uk/amazon.