Once fire-proof Amazon rainforests have become flammable, thanks to climate change

A forest fire in the Amazon. Image: Getty.

The Amazon rainforest is described as the planet’s lungs for good reason. So much carbon is locked up in its trees that protecting the forest is a must if we want to do something about global warming. However, reducing the CO₂ that is emitted when a tropical forest is destroyed depends not only on stopping the actual deforestation, but also on fighting wildfires within the forest.

In a new study published in Nature Communications we show that forest fires are responsible for a huge portion of the carbon emitted from the Brazilian Amazon. During drought years, these fires can emit around a billion tonnes of CO₂. That alone is double the amount of carbon effectively emitted through deforestation in the Amazon.

Humans are throwing vast amounts of CO₂ into the planet’s atmosphere. While in developed countries such as the US and UK most of the emissions come from industrial activities, in developing tropical countries such as Brazil, most come from forests being chopped down and burnt.

Yet while deforestation is already recognised as an important driver of carbon emissions, wildfires under the forest canopy present a less visible but still pernicious threat. To figure out just how bad the problem is, we combined satellite data on the current climate, atmospheric carbon content and the health of forest ecosystems. Our work revealed that emissions from tropical forest fires are growing, even though they are still not normally accounted for in estimates of national emissions.

Wildfires – but not natural fires

Wildfires in the Amazon are not natural events, but are instead caused by a combination of droughts and human activities. Both anthropogenic climate change and regional deforestation are linked to increases in the intensity and frequency of droughts over Amazonia.

Fires spreads into the forest during the 2015 drought. Image: Erika Berenguer/author provided.

This kicks off a nasty cycle: as trees have less water during such droughts, their growth slows and they’re less able to remove CO₂ from the atmosphere through photosynthesis. Trees then shed extra leaves or even die, which means more wood and leaves are ready to burn on the forest floor and, without a dense canopy to retain moisture, the forest loses some of the humidity which acted as natural fire prevention.

These changes are exacerbated by “selective logging” of specific tree species, which opens up the canopy and further dries out the understory and forest edges, which are drier than the interiors. The result: normally fire-proof rainforests become flammable.

A fiery future?

The resulting wildfires have reached a worrying level, burning millions of hectares during the recent El Niño. But the worst could still be to come, as the unusually warm conditions in the Atlantic or Pacific oceans that have caused previous droughts are expected to intensify.

So far this century the Amazon has already experienced three “droughts of the century”, in 2005, 2010, 2015-2016. If the climate science is accurate, and if no action is taken to efficiently predict and avoid fires occurring, we expect that carbon emissions from forest fires would be sustained even if deforestation ended overnight.

Smouldering tree trunk after a forest fire during the 2015 drought in eastern Amazonia. Image: Erika Berenguer/author provided.

As one of the signatories to the Paris agreement on climate change, Brazil is committed to reducing its emissions to 37 per cent below 2005 levels by 2025. A major reduction in deforestation rates over the past decade is a great start. However, deforestation policy doesn’t help reduce forest fires and consequently isn’t fully efficient in mitigating carbon emissions from the Amazon.

Brazil has made substantive advances in reporting emissions from deforestation. It now needs urgently to focus on incorporating CO₂ losses from wildfires into its estimates. After all, those fire emissions are expected to increase in future, thanks to more extreme droughts, an expansion of selective logging, and the ongoing use of fire to manage pasture or to remove regrowing vegetation on farmlands.

Kilometres of burned forests (magenta) spread across old-growth forests (green) in eastern Amazonia. White patches are clouds. Image: Celso Silva-Junior/USGS/author provided.

Given that fire is an essential part of many smallholders’ livelihoods, it is critically important to implement sustainable and socially-just policy responses. Brazil should start by reversing the budget cut to the organisation that oversees its only existing fire-prevention programme. It should also avoid selective logging in regions that are prone to fires, and ensure forest management always factors in long-term fire-prevention.

The ConversationIn summary, these findings are not only critical for policymakers in Brazil to strengthen the efforts of effectively quantifying and limiting carbon emissions from forest fires in the years ahead, but also to other tropical nations to tackle the potential impacts of drought-induced fires on their carbon budget. These new findings bring critical information for nations to help prepare for urgent actions aiming to mitigate the potential increase of fire emissions in response to the intensification of droughts in tropical ecosystems.

Luiz Aragão, Senior Lecturer in Earth Systems Sciences, University of Exeter; Jos Barlow, Professor of Conservation Science, Lancaster University, and Liana Anderson, Research Associate in Land Cover Dynamics and Carbon Emissions, University of Oxford.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.



The IPPC report on the melting ice caps makes for terrifying reading

A Greeland iceberg, 2007. Image: Getty.

Earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the UN body responsible for communicating the science of climate breakdown – released its long-awaited Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate.

Based on almost 7,000 peer-reviewed research articles, the report is a cutting-edge crash course in how human-caused climate breakdown is changing our ice and oceans and what it means for humanity and the living planet. In a nutshell, the news isn’t good.

Cryosphere in decline

Most of us rarely come into contact with the cryosphere, but it is a critical part of our climate system. The term refers to the frozen parts of our planet – the great ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, the icebergs that break off and drift in the oceans, the glaciers on our high mountain ranges, our winter snow, the ice on lakes and the polar oceans, and the frozen ground in much of the Arctic landscape called permafrost.

The cryosphere is shrinking. Snow cover is reducing, glaciers and ice sheets are melting and permafrost is thawing. We’ve known this for most of my 25-year career, but the report highlights that melting is accelerating, with potentially disastrous consequences for humanity and marine and high mountain ecosystems.

At the moment, we’re on track to lose more than half of all the permafrost by the end of the century. Thousands of roads and buildings sit on this frozen soil – and their foundations are slowly transitioning to mud. Permafrost also stores almost twice the amount of carbon as is present in the atmosphere. While increased plant growth may be able to offset some of the release of carbon from newly thawed soils, much will be released to the atmosphere, significantly accelerating the pace of global heating.

Sea ice is declining rapidly, and an ice-free Arctic ocean will become a regular summer occurrence as things stand. Indigenous peoples who live in the Arctic are already having to change how they hunt and travel, and some coastal communities are already planning for relocation. Populations of seals, walruses, polar bears, whales and other mammals and sea birds who depend on the ice may crash if sea ice is regularly absent. And as water in its bright-white solid form is much more effective at reflecting heat from the sun, its rapid loss is also accelerating global heating.

Glaciers are also melting. If emissions continue on their current trajectory, smaller glaciers will shrink by more than 80 per cent by the end of the century. This retreat will place increasing strain on the hundreds of millions of people globally who rely on glaciers for water, agriculture, and power. Dangerous landslides, avalanches, rockfalls and floods will become increasingly normal in mountain areas.

Rising oceans, rising problems

All this melting ice means that sea levels are rising. While seas rose globally by around 15cm during the 20th century, they’re now rising more than twice as fast –- and this rate is accelerating.

Thanks to research from myself and others, we now better understand how Antarctica and Greenland’s ice sheets interact with the oceans. As a result, the latest report has upgraded its long-term estimates for how much sea level is expected to rise. Uncertainties still remain, but we’re headed for a rise of between 60 and 110cm by 2100.

Of course, sea level isn’t static. Intense rainfall and cyclones – themselves exacerbated by climate breakdown – can cause water to surge metres above the normal level. The IPCC’s report is very clear: these extreme storm surges we used to expect once per century will now be expected every year by mid-century. In addition to rapidly curbing emissions, we must invest millions to protect at-risk coastal and low-lying areas from flooding and loss of life.

Ocean ecosystems

Up to now, the ocean has taken up more than 90 per cent of the excess heat in the global climate system. Warming to date has already reduced the mixing between water layers and, as a consequence, has reduced the supply of oxygen and nutrients for marine life. By 2100 the ocean will take up five to seven times more heat than it has done in the past 50 years if we don’t change our emissions trajectory. Marine heatwaves are also projected to be more intense, last longer and occur 50 times more often. To top it off, the ocean is becoming more acidic as it continues to absorb a proportion of the carbon dioxide we emit.

Collectively, these pressures place marine life across the globe under unprecedented threat. Some species may move to new waters, but others less able to adapt will decline or even die out. This could cause major problems for communities that depend on local seafood. As it stands, coral reefs – beautiful ecosystems that support thousands of species – will be nearly totally wiped out by the end of the century.

Between the lines

While the document makes some striking statements, it is actually relatively conservative with its conclusions – perhaps because it had to be approved by the 195 nations that ratify the IPCC’s reports. Right now, I would expect that sea level rise and ice melt will occur faster than the report predicts. Ten years ago, I might have said the opposite. But the latest science is painting an increasingly grave picture for the future of our oceans and cryosphere – particularly if we carry on with “business as usual”.

The difference between 1.5°C and 2°C of heating is especially important for the icy poles, which warm much faster than the global average. At 1.5°C of warming, the probability of an ice-free September in the Arctic ocean is one in 100. But at 2°C, we’d expect to see this happening about one-third of the time. Rising sea levels, ocean warming and acidification, melting glaciers, and permafrost also will also happen faster – and with it, the risks to humanity and the living planet increase. It’s up to us and the leaders we choose to stem the rising tide of climate and ecological breakdown.

Mark Brandon, Professor of Polar Oceanography, The Open University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.