Amazon Under Stress: Is It at a Tipping Point?

The Amazon rainforest in Brazil is going through a rough patch. A serious drought messed up the forest, wrecked the lives of folks depending on rivers, and caused wild fires that blanketed the region’s biggest city in smoke for weeks.

Threatening Freshwater and Key Rivers

The Amazon provides a huge chunk of the world’s ocean-bound freshwater. But lately, the vital rivers there are suffering big time due to this fourth nasty drought in less than 20 years.

Is the Amazon Reaching a Tipping Point?

Scientists are worried this mess—climate change, deforestation, fires—is pushing the Amazon towards a tipping point. That means it could change permanently into something drier, more like a savannah.

What’s the “Tipping Point”?

In a Science Advances article in 2018, scientists Carlos Nobre and Thomas Lovejoy used this term to talk about how destroying the Amazon—cutting down trees, climate change, and fires—could mess things up. They figured about 20-25% of the Amazon needs to stay untouched to stop parts of it from turning into a dry place like a savannah.

How Deforestation and Warming Hurt the Amazon

Trees in the Amazon help keep rainwater cycling. But when we chop down trees, over half of that rainwater just runs off. On top of that, climate models say global warming is causing more droughts there.

The Damage Done

Back in the day, the Amazon was huge—647 million hectares huge. But we’ve lost about 13% of it since European explorers showed up. The eastern part lost 31% of its forest, which messes up how moisture flows in from the Atlantic.

Current Crisis: Drought and Shrinking Rivers

This drought seems worse than the one in 2005. Rivers are drying up, with many hitting record lows. Manaus, a city there, is struggling with the Rio Negro hitting its lowest level in over a century. Plus, the dry season is getting longer.

Impact on Climate Change

The Amazon usually soaks up carbon, but if too many trees die, it could start spitting out more carbon. In 2005, so many trees died during a drought that the Amazon pumped out more greenhouse gases than what Europe and Japan emit in a year.

Can We Stop the Tipping Point?

For some parts of the Amazon, it might be too late. There are spots where the tipping point has already hit, according to the Amazonian Network of Georeferenced Socio Environmental Information (RAISG). They suggest protecting more land and restoring 6% of the original forest.

Hope for Restoration

There’s a glimmer of hope. Deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon dropped by over 20% in a year. The new president also pledged to reforest a massive chunk of land by 2030, and there are plans to restore forest areas, but it’s going to need serious cash—about $46.85 billion—to make it happen.