Uncontrolled fire can turn Amazon into savanna

Since Brazil’s President Jair Bollonaro took office, government measures to curb illegal fires have shown little effect, as flames and deforestation eradicate vast swats of the world’s largest rainforests.

Most fires in the Amazon are set by land-holders and wildcut ranchers, who demand the conversion of parts of the rainforest into their lucrative agricultural enterprises. And this August was a particularly bad time for such fires: Preliminary data collected by the National Spatial Research Institute (INPE) in the Brazilian Amazon last month show 29,307 fires.
However, due to a technical problem with NASA satellite tracking fires, experts say the figure could be even higher. The final tally of fire recorded in August is expected to increase by a total of 2% in August 2019, says INPE senior scientist Albert Sezer – which will make this August the worst in 10 years.
The more fire there is, the faster the rainforest turns into a meadow for illegal cattle and soy-growing works. According to research by NGO MapBiomas, which tracks land use in Brazil, 95% of deforestation area in Brazil was not authorized in 2019. “(Most fires) are illegal,” said Taso Azevedo, former head of the Brazilian Forest Service and coordinator of Mapbiomas.
Deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon biome reached 1,830 square miles, larger than the state of Rhode Island in the period from January to July 2020. The August figures of deforestation have not yet been released.

A tipping point?

As the trend goes on, the Amazon is moving rapidly toward a tipping point, when large areas of rainforest will no longer be able to produce enough rain to sustain themselves, leading climate scientists and researchers from the university Carlos of Brazil According to Nobre. Of São Paulo.

When this happens, the rainforest will begin to die, eventually turning into sawn, Nobre said.

Amazon acts as an “air conditioner” for the planet, scientists say, affecting global temperature and rainfall patterns. And a healthy Amazon also absorbs carbon dioxide, while fire does the opposite, releasing a large amount of heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
In mid-August, cattle next to smoke from a fire in LaBarre, Amazonas state.

The deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon has intensified since Bolsonaro took office in 2019, and environmentalists have accused the president of encouraging development on protected lands.

Pressure from international investors and companies this summer prompted the President of Brazil to issue a 120-day deferral on July 15, which bans fires in the Amazon and Pentanal, the world’s largest humid region.

However, data from INPE suggest that the ban was completely ignored. From July 15 to the end of August, fire in the Amazon remained at the same level (about 35,000) and nearly quadrupled (from 2035 to 7320 fires) in Pantanal compared to the same period in 2019.

Brazil also launched Operation Green Brazil 2 in May, which mobilized the armed forces to fight deforestation and fire in the Amazon in collaboration with federal environmental agencies and local police forces.
But they too failed to prevent the destruction of the Amazon, with Vice President Hamilton Mauro leading the operation acknowledged. “We are late in the fight against deforestation,” Morrow said at a press conference on September 4, asking for more time to show results.

Last Limit: Amazonas

The Brazilian state of Amazonas is one of the last frontier regions, where the forests are mostly protected. But there too, the illegal operation of loggers and ranchers is expanding.

Bolsonaro has taken over since destroying 844 square miles of forest in less than two years.

Satellite view of forests in southern Amazon state in July 2019
Satellite view of the southern Amazon state forests in July 2020, showing tracts cleaned in red by Mapbiomas.

Irregular agricultural expansion drove local small farmers and herders into the forest every year. “Land adjacent to the main roads is more concentrated in the possession of some large landowners, so landowners with less economic power are pushed further into the wilderness, whether by economic pressure, political pressure, or the use of violence,” Greenpeace’s Senior forest campaigner Ramamolo Batista said.

The most degraded area is the boundary of two federal highways south of Amazonas. In the city of Apui, near the junction of both roads, deforestation reached 110 square miles last year – almost twice the deforestation of 2018.

And every time the agricultural frontier is pushed inside the forest, the Amazon gets closer to its tipping point.

Satellite view of forests in Apui in July 2019.
The satellite view of forests in Apoi in July 2020 shows an expanded area of ​​clear land.

Nobre said that dry weather is a symptom of rapid deforestation. This will initially be felt elsewhere in Brazil and South America, as the Amazon generates a large proportion of rain for the rest of the country, and also affects rainfall in neighboring Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina.

And even farmers and peasants will feel the consequences. “This ‘savanna-easement’ of the Amazon will reduce rainfall, which will especially affect the agricultural sector, which is leading to deforestation. It’s a real shot in the foot,” Batista said. said.

If the Amazon disappears completely one day, Brazilian rainfall will reduce by an average of 25%, a practice predicted by researchers at Princeton University. Average temperatures will also be expected to rise by 2 degrees in Brazil and 0.25 degrees worldwide.
Nobre predicts that when the Amazon can no longer place itself between 20% and 25% of deforestation, the tipping point for that. According to INPE, it has lost 17% of its core area so far.

“It’s hard to tell when it’s going to happen, but we’re seeing it coming faster than before,” Nobre said.