Up to 40% of the Amazon Rainforest could transition into savannah in the years ahead due to the chronic stresses of deforestation and climate change, according to a new study published in the scientific journal Nature Communications.
Over the past decade, the Amazon Rainforest has lost 24,000 square miles of forest cover, or 10.3 million American football fields worth of land, according to Smithsonian Magazine. Over the last 50 years, the forest as a whole has been reduced by 17%.
This ongoing deforestation has disrupted the forest’s capacity to self-regulate and could eventually lead to its demise, according to the study.
Rainforests are massive systems that influence their own climates. The Amazon Rainforest, for example, generates its own rainfall by capturing and releasing moisture. But if enough of a rainforest gets destroyed, its capacity to self-regulate declines and makes it susceptible to droughts, fires, and more, the study reports.
The authors warn that the Amazon could soon cross a “tipping point,” where up to 40% of its landmass could transform into grassland with little tree coverage. Such a transition would have massive repercussions for the region and the planet as a whole, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
The Amazon Rainforest is a critical carbon sink that mitigates the effects of climate change. It creates oxygen, water, food, and shelter for millions of people. It’s also home to millions of species, making it a vital repository for biodiversity.
Crossing this tipping point is not inevitable, but current trends make it increasingly likely. Deforestation surged in 2019 throughout the rainforest, following the elimination of environmental protections by Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro. Huge sections of the forest trees were cleared to make way for industrial projects, endangering Indigenous communities in the process.
These threats are being amplified by rising temperatures and diminishing precipitation levels throughout the forest because of climate change, the Guardian reports.
To make matters even worse, as the forest shrinks, its ability to generate rainfall decreases, making droughts and fires more likely, according to the report.
This ultimately creates a feedback loop that shapes the forest’s hysteresis — its dependence on its history. In other words, if the forest gets drier and more flammable, more of the forest will go up in flames, further reducing its ability to generate rainfall, making it even more susceptible to droughts and fires.
If this plays out, nearly half of the Amazon will disappear.
The only way to prevent this scenario from unfolding is to curb deforestation in the region, invest in massive reforestation campaigns, and also reduce greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate climate change.