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The Amazon has emitted more carbon than it absorbed since 2010, study says

Tuesday, May 18th 2021, 11:27 am - Severe droughts and governmental policies that put the Amazon rainforest at risk are two major factors that have flipped this carbon sink into a carbon source.

The Brazilian Amazon Rainforest, dubbed the ‘lungs of the Earth’ for the vast amounts of oxygen it provides us and the crucial role it plays in regulating the climate, has actually been emitting more carbon dioxide than it has sequestered since 2010.

This finding comes from a study published in Nature Climate Change that reports the Amazon released 16.6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide between 2010–2019, which is 20 per cent more than the 13.9 billion tonnes that were captured.

While many factors have hindered the rainforests from removing enormous amounts of carbon from the air, the international team of researchers found that degradation actually played a bigger role than deforestation. Degradation refers to the activities that leave the rainforest damaged, but not destroyed.

deforestation amazon rainforest Credit: Marcio Isensee e Sa. iStock / Getty Images Plus Illegal mining damages trees and causes river pollution in the Amazon rainforest near Menkragnoti Indigenous Land. (Marcio Isensee e Sa. iStock / Getty Images Plus)

Satellite data from 2010–2019 revealed that degradation was responsible for three times more carbon loss than deforestation. Patchwork logging that disrupts continuous forest and leaves fragmented habitats, forest fires, and droughts are all examples of degradation that compromise the Amazon’s ability to capture carbon dioxide and sustain healthy levels of biodiversity.

"Degradation is a pervasive threat to future forest integrity and requires urgent research attention,” Dr. Stephen Sitch, of Exeter's Global Systems Institute, said in the study’s press release.

In addition to concerns with the impacts that increasing global temperatures are directly having on the Amazon, researchers say that climate events will be exacerbated by growing greenhouse gas emissions and will place further stress on the rainforest.

Amazon river Credit: (Vonkara1. iStock / Getty Images Plus) A satellite view of the Amazon River in Brazil. (Vonkara1. iStock / Getty Images Plus)

The study found that the amount of forest area lost in 2019 was higher than the amount lost in 2015 when there was a severe drought caused by a strong El Niño. The drought potential increases in parts of the Amazon during El Niño, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) say that extreme El Niño events could increase in frequency from about one every 20 years to one every 10 years by the end of this century.

Roughly half of all rainforests on Earth are located in the Amazon and despite the global influence this region has on biodiversity, hydrology, and the carbon cycle, deforestation and other harmful activities continue to expand. The researchers say that the increasing amount of forest area loss is due to a combination of policy change from the Brazilian government, land use change, drought, and other climate extremes.

amazon rainforest destruction (Jami Tarris. Stone. Getty Images) Aerial of Amazon forest clear cutting in Eastern Lowlands, Bolivia. (Jami Tarris. Stone. Getty Images)

“Reducing forest degradation must be a policy priority in the Brazilian Amazon to reach the requirement of Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) and the carbon emission reduction commitment of the 2015 Paris Agreement,” the researchers recommend.

“To effectively manage, conserve, and monitor tropical forests, it is essential to fully integrate in-situ, citizen-science, aerial, and space-borne data,” says the study. Space-borne platforms that are both currently in use and in development, such as the Geostationary Carbon Cycle Observatory, are cited as initiatives that will help monitor the Amazon rainforest and inform researchers about the challenges that need to be addressed.

Thumbnail credit: Lucas Ninno. Moment. Getty Images

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