Amazon Rainforest May Become a Barren Grassland
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The Guardian Reports: Amazon near tipping point of switching from rainforest to savannah – study
The Amazon rainforest is reaching its tipping point, as it slowly switches from a closed canopy rainforest to an open savannah with far fewer trees due to climate change.
Rainforests are highly sensitive to changes in rainfall and moisture levels, and fires and prolonged droughts can result in areas losing trees and shifting to a savannah-like mix of woodland and grassland. In the Amazon, such changes were known to be possible but thought to be many decades away.
A new study shows that this tipping point is now right around the corner. Almost 40% of the existing Amazon rainforest is now at a point where it could turn into a savannah, according to a study published in the journal Nature Communications.
Moving from a rainforest to a savannah is still years away, but the process is incredibly hard to reverse.
Parts of the Amazon are receiving much less rain than they used to because of the changing climate. Rainfall in about 40% of the forest is now at a level where the rainforest could be expected to exist as savannah instead, according to the study, led by the Stockholm Resilience Centre, based on computer models and data analysis.
Last year, Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil's president, war warned that if the fires and loggers continued to destroy the Amazon, that the region would be pushed closer to the tipping point. This year alone has experience the worst fires in a decade, with a 60% increase in fire hotspots compared with last year.
Arie Staal, lead author of the study, said the ecology of rainforests meant that although they effectively produce their own self-sustaining rainfall in the right climate, they are also prone to drying out in the wrong conditions.
“As forests grow and spread across a region, this affects rainfall,” he explained. “Forests create their own rain because leaves give off water vapour and this falls as rain further downwind. Rainfall means fewer fires leading to even more forests.”
But as more areas of rainforest are lost, so do levels of rainfall.
“Drier conditions make it harder for the forest to recover and increase the flammability of the ecosystem,” Staal told the Guardian. Once rainforest has crossed the threshold and converted to an open savannah-type mix of wood and grassland, it is unlikely to revert naturally to its former state.
“It is harder to return from the ‘trap’ caused by the feedback mechanism in which the open, grassy ecosystem is more flammable, and the fires, in turn, keep the ecosystem open,” he said.
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