Tag Archives: amazon rainforest

Amazon rainforest approaching tipping point of turning into savannah

A combination of climate change, deforestation, and fires has put immense strain on the Amazon basin — home to the single largest remaining tropical rainforest in the world, housing at least 10% of the world’s known biodiversity — since the early 2000s. A new study suggests that over three-quarters of the Amazon region is showing signs that rainforests may be nearing a tipping point, where they could turn into a savannah.

“There is a lot of discussion about the future of the Amazon rainforest and its tipping point. This comes from model studies that originally showed a fast loss of the Amazon rainforest. Since then there has been a lot of uncertainty about its future based on models not agreeing with each other, different future scenarios of climate change, etc. This leads us to look at the real world Amazon to actually see what is going on, and why wouldn’t you if the data is there? We use well-established indicators to measure the changing resilience of the forest, finding that 75% of the forest is losing resilience,” Chris Boulton, Associate Research Fellow at the University of Exeter in the UK, told ZME Science

R(1) values at each location are measured over time and approximate how much memory the forest has (how similar the forest is compared to how it was previously). Higher values suggest more memory, meaning the forest is responding more slowly to weather events, having lower resilience to them. Over the years, the increasing AR(1) values at individual locations, as well as the average behaviour over the region (shown by the time series) shows that there has been a loss of resilience in the Amazon rainforest, particularly over the last 20 years. Credit: Boulton, et al.; Nature Climate Change

Resilience, Boulton added, refers to an ecosystem’s ability to recover from strenuous events such as droughts. Monitoring ecosystem resilience is paramount because it can help determine the magnitude and timing of ecological interventions, such as environmental watering, as well as provide trajectories we can expect in highly disturbed ecosystems subject to ongoing change. And few regions across the world are under as much stress as the Amazon basin is currently experiencing.

Aggressive modern human economic invasion in the area over the past decades has supplanted once tropical foliage with roads, dams, cattle farms, and huge soy plantations. Adding insult to injury are the hundreds of wildfires that lit large chunks of the iconic rainforest up in flames. In 2020 alone, fires razed more than 19 million acres of the world’s largest tropical forest.

With the forest habitat shredded, many endemic species are under threat of extinction, their previous role being filled by often invasive animals. For instance, we’re seeing giant anteaters being replaced by rats and Brazil nut trees making way for weeds.

Using remote satellite sensing data, Boulton and colleagues modeled changes in the resilience of the Amazon rainforest between 1991 and 2016, coming to some stark conclusions. The analysis revealed that 75% of the Amazon has been steadily losing resilience since the early 2000s, which in simple terms means that the rainforests are finding it increasingly difficult to recover after a big drought or fire.

“I think the biggest challenge with this work was the amount of robustness checking that needed to be done. To have such a striking result, all of our coauthors had to be confident that what we were seeing stood up to various tests,” Boulton said.

These concerning developments suggest to the study’s authors that the Amazon may be approaching a critical threshold. Once crossed, key regions of the Amazon may irremediably transition into a new state, from luxurious rainforests to savannas.

The loss of resilience is most prominent in areas that are closer to human activity, as well as in regions that receive less rainfall. That was to be expected. But what was particularly surprising was finding loss of resilience did not necessarily overlap with loss in forest cover. That’s worrisome because it suggests ecosystems that look to be doing well from up above may be actually more vulnerable to changing their mean state than previously thought.

“On the surface, the Amazon may appear comfortable (by looking at the state of the forest), but you need indicators like the ones we use to really see its health. There is a section in the new IPCC report regarding the ‘committed response’ of the Amazon; that in the future, the Amazon may appear stable but the climate it is experiencing may not be good enough for it to survive. Because the forest overall responds slowly to change, it may have passed a tipping point without being realized from the outside,” Boulton said.

The study did not attempt to offer a timeline for this possible transformation of the rainforests. When such a threshold could be reached if things continue business as usual is a big enigma at this stage. But these alarming findings suggest that, if ecosystem resilience is any indication, the Amazon basin is heading towards this critical point of no return. Furthermore, the level of uncertainty is compounded by the many dependencies that characterize such a complex ecosystem like the Amazon.

“Losing part of the forest will also affect rainfall in other areas, which could create losses of resilience in areas where we do not see it at the moment. As for when, I think this is tough to answer, I am surprised to see these signals now over such a large area, and if others are too then it could give people a wake-up call to do something about it,” Boulton said.

An Amazonian tribe is defending their forests from illegal loggers with bow and arrow

Motivated by the love for their native lands and armed with bows, arrows, GPS trackers and camera traps, an indigenous community in northern Brazil is fighting to achieve what officials couldn’t – stop illegal logging in their part of the Amazon.

Honor and survival

The Ka’apor are a distinct ethnic group of indigenous Brazilians living on a protected reserve in the state of Maranhão. They live in a heavily deforested area of Pre-Amazonian forest, but have managed to protect the forest within their designated reserve up until now. The 2,200 people all contribute to the struggle and receive little to no help from authorities.

Logging tractors constantly surround their settlement. Drivers and chainsaw operators are warned never to return, but always do. In 2014, the tribe attacked a group of loggers, tying them up, humiliating them and destroying the cut logs, but ultimately set them free.

It’s a dangerous game they play. Since 2011, when they started their defense operation, the cutting of trees has slowed down, but four tribe members have been murdered, and many more have been threatened by the loggers. The Ka’apor asked the government to protect their borders, which were recognised in 1982 and a federal court ordered the authorities to set up security posts, but nothing happened. Tidiun Ka’apor (who, like all of the leaders of the group, asked to have his name changed to avoid being targeted by loggers) spoke to the Guardian:

“Sometimes, it’s like a film. They fight us with machetes, but we always drive them off,” he says. “We tell them, ‘We’re not like you. We don’t steal your cows so don’t steal our trees.”

The weapons they use are bows and arrows and borduna – a heavy sword-shaped baton. There is only one old, rusty rifle, but more often than not, it all comes down to sheer numbers: the Ka’apor have the numbers, and the motivation. For the loggers, it’s all about the profits. Many sought after trees grow in the area, including ipê (Brazilian walnut), which can fetch almost £1,000 ($1,500) per cubic metre after processing. But for the Ka’apur, it’s about their home, their territory, and something perhaps even more important: their dignity, constantly eroded of two decades of logging. But ultimately, it’s about survival; the forest is their survival, and without the forest, they just can’t survive.

A losing battle?

Another of the group’s leaders, Miraté Ka’apor says the use of violence is justified, but this feels like an arms race they cannot ultimately win.

“The loggers come here to steal from us. So, they deserve what they get. We have to make them feel our loss – the loss of our timber, the destruction of our forest.” Compared with the past, he said the missions were effective. “Our struggle is having results because the loggers respect us now.”

The loggers have threatened to strike back with vengeance and lethal force, and they already have. They’ve threatened tribe members, destroyed their homes, and even killed them. It’s a story that shouldn’t have gotten to here… and that likely won’t end here.

The Guardian has a really lengthy and detailed article, which I really suggest reading. The Ka’apor are looking for seeking support through NGOs and the media. Perhaps media pressure will force local authorities to intervene, and perhaps we could make a difference. It’s a long shot, but who knows.

How roads could help protect the environment instead of destroying it

Rapidly expanding road networks are causing massive direct and indirect damage to forests but proper infrastructure planning and implementation could actually turn them into a net positive for the environment, argue researchers writing in the journal Science.

William Laurance and Andrew Balmford have studied the severe negative environmental issues caused by expanding road networks in wilderness areas, including fostering illegal logging, poaching, colonization, and land speculation. The most damage is, of course, in the Amazon.

“More than 95% of deforestation, fires and atmospheric carbon emissions in the Brazilian Amazon occur within 50 kilometers of a road,” they write, noting that 100,000 kilometers of roads now crisscross the Amazon. “The Belém-Brasília Highway, completed in the early 1970s, now cuts a 400-kilometer-wide swathe of cleared forest and secondary roads through the Amazon.”


“Loggers, miners and other road builders are putting roads almost everywhere, including places they simply shouldn’t go, such as wilderness areas,” added Balmford in a statement. “Some of these roads are causing environmental disasters.”

Of course, it’s not necessarily the roads themselves which cause all this damage. In agricultural areas, roads lead to better farm yields, access to markets, improve farm efficiency and profits. However, it’s exactly this increase in profits which then drives people to expand into wilderness areas, especially tropical forests, wetlands, and grasslands.

Laurance and Balmford propose a “global ‘road-zoning’ project” to map what areas should be off-limits to roads and what areas should be prioritized for road improvement.

road road

“We are convinced that increasing agricultural yields will lessen the impact of farming on natural ecosystems only if coupled with effective land-use planning,” they write. We believe that a collaborative, global zoning exercise is needed to identify where road building or improvement should be a priority, where it should be restricted and where existing roads should be closed. A multidisciplinary team could integrate and standardize satellite data on intact habitats with information on transport infrastructure, agricultural yields and losses, biodiversity indicators, carbon storage and other relevant factors. Much of this information has been recorded or can be extrapolated from current data sources.”

After the analysis is complete, it could be very useful in preserving areas and provide information for policymakers and others involved in planning roads in the form of high-resolution maps.

“It is much easier for policy-makers to influence patterns of road development than to affect more socially complex problems such as population growth and overconsumption,” they write. “Roads can be re-routed, cancelled or delayed. Large road projects are often funded by taxpayers, investors or international donors who can be surprisingly responsive to environmental concerns.”

Properly planned roads could not only help protect the nature by limiting the illegal expansion into protected areas, but also attract people away from sensitive areas while at the same time boosting rural livelihoods from activities not linked to habitat conversion or degradation.

“Trains and boats move people and products but limit the human footprint by stopping only at specific places.”


Scientists discover vividly colored lizards in the Peruvian Amazon

There is still unbelievably much we have yet to discover from the Amazon. Now, researchers have uncovered two new species of woodlizards from Peru.

The blue woodlizard

The blue woodlizard

Woodlizards are little known species of reptiles, with only 10 species being described so far, all of which are found in Central or South America (9 in Peru). These new found species were found in Cordillera Azul National Park, one of the largest in Peru, and described in ZooKeys.

Male and female (duller colored) of Bin Zayed's woodlizard (Enyalioides azulae).

Male and female (duller colored) of Bin Zayed’s woodlizard (Enyalioides azulae).

“These species were discovered in recent expeditions to poorly explored areas on both sides of the Andes in Ecuador and Peru, suggesting that more species might be awaiting discovery in other unexplored areas close to the Andes,” the researchers write.

Blue woodlizard.

Blue woodlizard.

The species were named Enyalioides azulae, or the blue woodlizard, and Enyalioides binzayedi, or Bin Zayed’s woodlizard after Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and UAE – who funded the expedition.

lizard 4

Bin Zayed’s woodlizard.

“Thanks to these discoveries, Peru becomes the country holding the greatest diversity of woodlizards. Cordillera Azul National Park is a genuine treasure for Peru and it must be treated as a precious future source of biodiversity exploration and preservation!” said lead author Pablo Venegas from the Centro de ornitología y Biodiversidad (CORBIDI) in Lima, Perú.

There is, at the moment no indication of whether woodlizards are threatened, as no such study has been conducted. However, this is once again a clear indication about the wonderful biodiversity that thrives in the Amazon and which we are endangering more every day.

lizard 5