Tag Archives: Amazon

Deforestation caused three times the natural average of fires in the Amazon

The fires that raged across the Bazilian Amazon were far from normal, despite what the local government would have you believe.

Satellite image of the Amazon on fire, taken by MODIS between 15-22 August 2019.
Image credits by Joshua Stevens / NASA Earth Observatory.

While the Amazon fires made headlines across the world, and galvanized public outrage and activism this summer, the Brazilian Government claimed that they were ‘normal’ for August and ‘below the historical average’. A new study shows that this is, basically, an outright lie — and that government-backed deforestation could be the cause.

According to the findings, the number of active Amazon fires in August was three times higher than in 2018, and the highest number seen since 2010.

Ample blaze

“The marked upturn in both active fire counts and deforestation in 2019 therefore refutes suggestions by the Brazilian Government that August 2019 was a normal fire month in the Amazon,” says Professor Jos Barlow, lead author of the paper.

The team reports that, although fires in the Amazon can start in a number of ways, they found strong evidence in support of deforestation fostering the 2019 fires. The researchers used data collected from the Brazilian Government’s DETER-b deforestation detection system, which calculates deforestation by interpreting images taken by NASA satellites.

In July of 2019, the Brazilian Amazon saw four times as much deforestation by area as the average for the same period over the previous three years. The team explains that deforestation is almost always followed by fires, as cut vegetation is left to dry before being burned.

“Brazil has for the past decade been an environmental leader, showing to the world that it can successfully reduce deforestation. It is both economically and environmentally unwise to revert this trend,” adds Professor Barlow.

The link between deforestation and fires is strengthened by the fact that the August fires occurred in a period without a serious drought, which foster wildfires. The team further explains that the tall smoke plumes released by the fires strongly indicate that they were generated by large quantities of burning biomass. As the Amazon rainforest is a very wet environment, this strongly points to cut-and-dried plants as their likely fuel.

By September, the team writes, the number of active fires decreased by 35%. Although President Bolsonaro instituted a two-month moratoria on fires prior to this drop, the team is unsure whether the decline was due to the decision itself or due to heavy rains that occurred in that period. Still, the number of fires alone doesn’t accurately capture the full extent of the damage; the team explains that while the number of fires was counted, their extent was not.

“Our paper clearly shows that without tackling deforestation, we will continue to see the largest rainforest in the world being turned to ashes. We must curb deforestation,” says Dr Erika Berenguer, a co-author of the study.

The paper “Clarifying Amazonia’s burning crisis” has been published in the journal Global Change Biology.

Deforestation reaches highest level in a decade in the Brazilian Amazon

Following record forest fires that shocked the world, Brazil is again in the spotlight as deforestation in the Amazon reached the highest annual level in a decade — putting more pressure on Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, seen by many as a supporter of the deforestation.

Credit Wikimedia Commons

Almost 10,000 square kilometers of forest were lost in the year to August, which represents a hike of almost 30% from the previous year, according to Brazil’s space agency INPE.

This is the fastest deforestation rate the country has seen since 2008. It’s the equivalent to clearing two football pitches of forest per minute, according to INPE’s — the National Institute for Space Research, a research unit of the Brazilian Ministry of Science. The data was compiled with information from Prodes satellite system, which have produced annual deforestation rates for the region since 1988.

Reacting to the news, Adriana Ramos from the Socio-Environmental Institute, told The Guardian that the current administration is to blame for these changes:

“It is no surprise this is happening because the president has defended environmental crime and promoted impunity. The government weakened environmental protection, supported loggers and encouraged land-grabbing.”

Meanwhile, the NGO Climate Observatory said the increase in deforestation was the third most important experienced by Brazil, after the ones seen in 1995 and 1998, adding the growing clearing of forest is likely to continue.

“Proposals like legalizing land-grabbing, mining and farming on indigenous lands, as well as reducing the licensing requirements for new infrastructure will show that the coming years will be even worse,” Carlos Rittl, Climate Observatory executive secretary, told The Guardian.

The growing deforestation rates go completely against Brazil’s climate change pledges and its commitment to the Paris Agreement. On its contribution, Brazil vowed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 43% by 2030, in comparison to 2005 levels.

Currently, Brazil is not in line with the Paris Agreement goals of avoiding a temperature increase of more than two Celsius degrees, according to Climate Tracker (CAT) analysis. CAT has questioned Bolsonaro’s lack of climate policies, which have encouraged deforestation, lending more support to the idea that the current administration is at least partly to blame for the deforestation.

Back in August, Brazil declared a state of emergency due to a record number of forest fires in the Amazon region. Almost 73,000 fires were detected, which represented the highest number since 2013 and an increase of 83% from 2018. Those fires were directly connected to Brazil’s meat industry, as the ranchers tried to burn down patches of the forest to make way for soy plantations meant to feed livestock.

This is an important matter not just for Brazil, but for the entire planet. The Amazon rainforest plays a significant role in regulating the climate of the world, generating a large amount of oxygen and storing a very large amount of carbon.

Illegal loggers kill indigenous leader in the Amazon

During an ambush over the weekend, a member of an indigenous group in Northern Brazil that works to protect the Amazon rainforest was killed by illegal loggers, who also wounded another member of the group, according to local reports.

 Paulo Paulino Guajajara was shot and killed inside the Araribóia Indigenous territory in Maranhão state. Credit: Reuters TV.

Paulino Guajajara was an indigenous warrior who belonged to a group called the “Guardians of the Forest” and was also a member of the Guajarara tribe. He was reportedly shot by illegal loggers while he was on a hunt in Maranhao, a state in northern Brazil that spans part of the Amazon rainforest.

Paulino Guajajara’s death comes as Brazil sees a rise in illegal loggers invading reservations and forest lands since President Jair Bolsonaro was elected. The right-wing leader has repeatedly called for the development of the Amazon region since taking office.

This is also in line with a spike in deforestation in Brazil during the Bolsonaro administration. Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) reported a record 72,843 fires this year, an 80 percent increase from last year. NASA noted that the fires were large enough that they could be spotted from space.

Sonia Guajajara, a member of the APIB, which is committed to fighting for indigenous peoples’ rights in Brazil, said on Twitter that it’s “time to stop this institutionalized genocide” after Paulino’s death. “Stop authorizing the bloodshed of our people!” she continued.

In an interview with Reuters in September, Paulino Guajajara told the news agency that though protecting the forest is dangerous, he and his people must continue the work.

“I’m scared at times, but we have to lift up our heads and act. We are here fighting,” he said then. “We have to preserve this life for our children’s future,” added Paulino Guajajara.

A recent study said killings of environmental defenders have doubled over the past 15 years to reach levels usually associated with war zones. The study revealed how murders of activists are concentrated in countries with the worst corruption and weakest laws.

At least 1,558 people in 50 countries were killed between 2002 and 2017 while trying to protect their land, water or local wildlife, says the analysis from NGO Global Witness, which calculated the death toll is almost half that of US troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001.

A unique tree could help soils remain fertile in the Amazon

Subject to growing wildfires and deforestation, the Amazon has been recently challenged in Brazil and Bolivia. But there’s a ray of hope, as researchers are encouraging farmers to plant a tree species that could keep the soil fertile.

Credit Wikipedia Commons

The inga tree, known as the ice cream bean three, can grow on the very poor soil left by destructive slash and burn land clearing and also improve the soil, making it fertile enough for other species to return.

The tree fixes nitrogen into the soil, a key nutrient for plants. Then, its beans can be sold by farmers, leaves from the trees can be fed to cattle, and they can be coppiced to create firewood – giving people several reasons to invest in growing them.

The Ouro Verde Institute in Brazil is behind an initiative designed to support farmers wishing to plant inga trees, aiming to prove that farmers can expect to get an income from the species – which is a type of legume.

Toby Pennington, a professor of tropical plant diversity and biogeography at the University of Exeter, told the BBC: “Even amongst legumes, they have pretty fantastic growth rates. If you had a cup of coffee this morning that came from Latin America, the odds are that it was growing underneath one of these inga trees.”

The ecosystems that thrive below the branches of the trees are also an important factor for boosting ecological diversity and assisting growers with the means of making even greater financial returns. Greater coverage of land where ingas are grown could also provide vital corridors for wildlife in the Amazon.

However, attempts to re-green areas of the Amazon needs to occur at the same time as stopping the destruction of the rainforest. Fires in the Amazon have increased by 84% since the same period last year, according to satellite data from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research.

In June, the institute published data showing an 88% increase in deforestation in the Amazon compared to the same month a year ago. The data release led to Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro accusing the director of the National Institute for Space Research of lying, which apparently led to him being fired.

The Amazon rainforest has long been recognized as a repository of ecological services not only for local tribes and communities but also for the rest of the world. It is also the only rainforest that we have left in terms of size and diversity.

Forest fires put the Amazon close to its tipping point

In just two years, the Amazon rainforest could reach a tipping point in which it would stop producing enough rain to sustain itself and start slowly converting into a savannah, releasing billions of tons of carbon emissions to the atmosphere, a Brazilian economist warned.

Credit Wikipedia Commons

Usually described as the “lungs of the planet,” the Amazon has been severely affected by a set of forest fires during its latest dry season. The policies of President Jair Bolsonaro were linked to the unusual number of fires, as farmers clear out land for their crops.

Monica de Bolle, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington DC, issued the tipping point warning in a policy brief, which created controversy. Some believe the tipping point is still 15 to 20 years away, while others agree with de Bolle.

“It’s a stock, so like any stock you run it down, run it down – then suddenly you don’t have any more of it,” de Bolle, whose brief also recommended solutions to the current crisis, told The Guardian.

Brazil’s space research institute, INPE, reported that deforestation in August was 222% higher than in August 2018. Maintaining the current rate of increase INPE reported between January and August this year would bring the Amazon close to the estimated tipping point as soon as 2021, de Bolle said.

“If Bolsonaro is serious about developing the Amazon without paying any attention to sustainability or maintaining the forest’s standing, these rates would happen within his mandate,” she added.

One of Brazil’s leading climate scientists and a senior researcher at the University of São Paulo’s, Carlos Nobre questioned her calculation that estimated deforestation would quadruple from an estimate of nearly 18,000 km2 this year to nearly 70,000 km2 by 2021.

“It seems very improbable to me – the projected deforestation increase is more an economic calculation than ecological,” he said. However, he added: “We are seeing an increase in deforestation, I am not questioning this.”

Last year, Nobre argued in an article written with celebrated American conservation biologist Thomas Lovejoy that the Amazon tipping point could happen in eastern, southern and central Amazonia when 20% to 25% of the rainforest has been felled – not expected for 20 to 25 years. He has since brought forward his prediction by about five years.

“The Amazon is already 17% deforested, so when you calculate at the current rate of deforestation, this 20% to 25% is reached in 15 to 20 years,” he said. “I hope she is wrong. If she is right, it is the end of the world.”

Lovejoy, a professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, said that de Bolle’s projection could come true because global heating, soaring deforestation and an increase in Amazon fires have created a “negative synergy” that is accelerating its destruction – citing droughts in recent years as a warning sign.

“We are seeing the first flickering of that tipping,” he told The Guardian. “It’s sort of like a seal trying to balance a rubber ball on its nose … the only sensible thing to do is to do some reforestation and build back that margin of safety.”

Among other commitments under the Paris climate deal, Brazil agreed to reforest 12m hectares and end illegal deforestation by 2030. Mongabay reported last month that Brazil looks increasingly unlikely to meet its Paris targets. Deforestation began rising under Rousseff in 2013 after nine years of decline and has accelerated under Bolsonaro.

Two million animals die in Bolivia due to forest fires

As a result of the raging forest fires that continue to burn in areas of Latin America, more than two million wild animals have died in Bolivia, including jaguars, pumas, and llamas, among many others.

Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Scientists estimate about 2.4 million animals perished in fires burning in protected forest and grassland areas, such as the tropical savannas of the Chiquitania region in eastern Bolivia.

“We have consulted the biologists of Chiquitania and we have exceeded the estimate of more than 2.3 million missing animals in many protected areas,” Professor Sandra Quiroga of Santa Cruz University said.

More than 34,000 fires have so far affected Bolivia. They have been linked to farmers clearing land for their crops, as well as extended dry periods. Sergio Vasquez, a disaster response manager at World Animal Protection, described it as the biggest emergency Bolivia has ever seen.

The main victims of the fires have been Latin American ocelots, and other wild cats like pumas and jaguars, as well as deer, llamas — and smaller forest animals like anteaters, badgers, lizards, tapirs, and rodents, according to biologists investigating the scale of the damage.

“The forest is totally charred, and the damage is irreversible. It will never get back to normal,” said Quiroga.

Among the country’s nine departments, eastern Santa Cruz has been the hardest hit since the fires began in May and intensified in late August. Back then, the government enlisted special firefighting planes, a Supertanker Boeing 747 and a Russian Ilyushin, as well as helicopters, 5,000 firefighters, soldiers and police

Nevertheless, the fires have still not been extinguished. Environmentalists blame laws enacted under leftist President Evo Morales, who has encouraged the burning of forest and pastureland to expand agricultural production. The government attributes the blazes to dry weather and flame-fanning winds.

The situation faced by Bolivia is not much different than what’s happening in the Brazilian Amazon, though Brazil has received far more attention. In Brazil, the fires are also endangering the countless species but with no clear understanding of the consequences yet.

“The scale, intensity, and velocity of fire destruction are alarming and more intense than any other threat in comparable timescales,” Esteban Payan, the South America regional director for Panthera, said. “This is so alarming because there isn’t an equivalent collective response.”

Biochar could be key to rebuilding the Amazon forest

Credit: Wake Forest University.

Over the past few weeks, the world has witnessed in horror as the Amazon rainforest became engulfed in devastating fires. Besides fire, the Amazon’s iconic canopies are constantly being besieged by land clearing for agriculture, logging, and mining. However, scientists are researching ways to rebuild the rainforest.

Writing in a new study, researchers at Wake Forest University’s Center for Amazonian Scientific Innovation (CINCIA) found that biochar — charcoal used in soil amendment — is a cheap and effective material that can improve tree seedling survival during reforestation efforts.

The first few months following transplanting are the most vulnerable in a tree seedling’s life, but the researchers found that adding just a bit of biochar improves the soil, thereby improving the survivability of the seedlings. Adding fertilizers gives maximum results, the researchers found.

Biochar is beneficial for the soil, allowing it to retain more water and become less acidic. Biochar is also a great environment for microbes, which aid plant growth. Finally, biochar holds fertilizer and releases it over time. This winning combo decreases the need for repeat application of fertilizer, thereby lowering replanting costs.

For their study, the research team used soils from the San Jacinto native community in Peru, whose lands have been affected by gold mining. When the researchers led by Miles Silman analyzed this particular soil, they found that it was devoid of organic matter and microbes.

After adding biochar and fertilizers to two tropical tree species (Guazuma crinita and Terminalia amazonia) grown in the depleted soil, the researchers found that they could “fix” the damaged soil.

“We show that while both biochar and fertilizer can improve tree seedling growth, combining them makes seedlings thrive beyond either amendment alone,” said Silman.

The study suggests that biochar is excellent for recovering soil from areas damaged by gold mining.

“These are the kinds of landscapes we have to recover, and we are still trying to determine how to grow plants in them,” Silman said. “This soil is extremely limiting for natural regrowth, but treating them with biochar turns it into something that plants can grow in. That’s good for biodiversity and good for the people that have to make a living from the land.”

The findings appeared in the journal Forests.

It’s not just about Brazil – Bolivia’s forests are also under fire

With global attention focused on the fires burning across the Brazilian Amazon, neighboring Bolivia is battling its own vast blazes, which have charred an area nearly as extensive as the nation of Lebanon.

Credit: Wikipedia Commons.

At least 38,793 fires are burning across the country and a total of 3,700 square miles (950,000 hectares) have been burned so far this year, according to Cliver Rocha, director of the National Forests and Lands Authority in Bolivia.

The largest part of the fires is in the Chiquitanía region of southeastern Bolivia, a zone of dry forest, farmland and open prairies that has seen an expansion of farming and ranching in recent years. In addition to the environmental damage, there’s also a massive economic cost: an estimated US$1.1 billion worth of timber has been destroyed because of the fires this year alone.

Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales, has previously rejected offers of international help to battle the fires, but now he announced that he would interrupt his re-election campaign for a week to help coordinate foreign aid efforts.

“Any cooperation is welcome, whether it comes from international organizations, celebrities or from the presidents who offered to help,” Morales said in Cochabamba, where he had been campaigning for a fourth term in office.

Morales said he had been called by global leaders, including the presidents of Paraguay, Chile, and Spain. Firefighters from Chile and Argentina as well as France, Spain, and Russia were deployed to help fight the flames, according to local media reports.

The government contracted the world’s largest firefighting tanker plane from the United States, and officials say it has helped control the expansion of the fires, but hot, dry and windy conditions have kept the blazes burning. Peru contributed to the effort by sending two helicopter tankers.

Last week, the pan-Amazon indigenous organization COICA accused Morales, and his Brazilian counterpart, Jair Bolsonaro, of “gutting every environmental and social strategy to strengthen environmental governance of the Amazon”.

COICA declared the two governments as not welcome in the Amazon and held them personally accountable for the “cultural and environmental genocide” in the world’s largest wilderness.

The Bolivian Friends of Nature Foundation has complained that the government ignored fire precautions needed at a time when the area — unlike the Amazon further north — is suffering drought conditions.

Morales in July issued a decree allowing controlled burns and clearing of lands. While people are supposed to obtain prior permission, authorities say most of the fires have been started illegally. Morales also granted an amnesty for people caught burning fields illegally last year.

Satellite shows cloud of carbon monoxide pollution from Amazon fires

The Amazon rainforest is burning, with hundreds of wildfires in Brazil and Bolivia that so far haven’t been stopped. New satellite imagery from NASA shows an enormous cloud of poisonous carbon monoxide rising from the devastation.

Credit: NASA

The images were taken from NASA’s Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS) instrument, aboard the Aqua satellite, and show the cloud evolving between Aug. 8 and Aug. 22. It starts first over Brazil, where the majority of the rainforest is located, and ultimately spreads to most of the northern part of South America.

“A pollutant that can travel large distances, carbon monoxide can persist in the atmosphere for about a month,” NASA wrote on its website. “At the high altitude mapped in these images, the gas has little effect on the air we breathe; however, strong winds can carry it downward to where it can significantly impact air quality. Carbon monoxide plays a role in both air pollution and climate change.”

The vast specter changes colors, going from green to yellow to red, which represents a rather large increase in carbon monoxide in the atmosphere. NASA said that green indicates concentrations of approximately 100 parts per billion by volume (ppbv), while yellow is indicative of 120 ppbv and dark red of 160 ppbv.

The normal concentration is considered at 100ppbv, according to the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. Experiencing a higher level can lead to headache, dizziness, weakness, upset stomach, vomiting, chest pain, and confusion, all flu-like symptoms.

While the recently spotted cloud may float at too high an altitude to pose a serious risk on the ground, it’s not the only airborne hazard released by the ongoing wildfires. Last week, smoke from the fires traveled halfway across Brazil to blanket São Paulo in a midnight-black haze in the middle of the afternoon.

Brazil’s National Space Research Institute, which monitors deforestation, has recorded that the number of fires has risen by 85 percent to more than 77,000 in the last year, a record since the institute began keeping track in 2013. About half of the fires have been in the Amazon region, with many in just the past month.

At a summit in France, the Group of Seven nations pledged $20 million on Monday to help fight the flames in the Amazon and protect the rainforest, in addition to a separate $12 million from Britain and $11 million from Canada. Nevertheless, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has so far been reluctant to accept the funds.

What is happening in the Amazon? Key questions and answers

Wildfires are raging throughout the Amazon forest, making headlines worldwide and pushing the world’s largest forest closer and closer to an ecological “tipping point” at which the forest could irretrievably degrade into drylands.

But is be a complex story, and online discussion has been riddled with misinformation, misleading photos, and outright errors. To fill in the gaps and bust some common myths, we answered some of the key questions regarding the forest fires.

Credit: Flickr

What is happening in the Amazon now?

Fires are burning in Brazil and Bolivia, many of them in the world’s llargest rainforest, the Amazon, sending clouds of smoke across the region and pumping alarming quantities of carbon into the world’s atmosphere.

So far this year, almost 73,000 fires have been detected, which marks an 83% increase from 2018 and the highest number on record since 2013. In several states across Brazil, the amount of ash and other particulates in August has hit the highest level since 2010.

Is all the Amazon forest under fire?

No, images of an entire forest ablaze are exaggerated. There has been misinformation spread in social media, using images of previous years’ burning seasons. There are larger fires in Colombia and eastern Brazil than in the Amazon. While there are fires in protected areas, most of them are in already deforested ones.

What’s causing the forest fires?

The fires are mostly caused by farmers clearing forest for cropland or burning stubble after the harvest season. Illegal land-grabbers are also responsible, destroying trees to raise the value of the property they seize. They are manmade and, in many cases, deliberate. Unlike the recent forest fires in Siberia and Alaska, the Amazon fires are very unlikely to have been caused by lightning. Many of the fires can be linked to deforestation for soy crops, which is used to feed cattle and pigs to support the ever-growing demand for meat.

Why is the Amazon so important?

The Amazon rainforest is known as the “planet’s lungs,” because it provides a large part of the Earth’s atmospheric oxygen. The rainforest also removes vast amounts of carbon from the atmosphere and stores it, which can help slow down global warming. Additionally, the rainforest is home to more than 3 million species of plants and animals, representing the most biodiversity in the world. Millions of indigenous people also live in the Amazon rainforest.

If the Amazon is the planet’s lungs, should we worry about oxygen?

No. The crops being planted in the cleared forest areas would also produce oxygen, quite likely at higher levels. So, although the burning of the rainforest is worrying for many reasons, there is no need to worry about an oxygen shortage.

If it’s not oxygen, what are the consequences of the forest fires?

It’s mostly CO2 and ecosystem destruction. Mostly illegal, the forest fires are degrading the world’s biggest terrestrial carbon sink and most important home for biodiversity. They also contribute to a rise in deforestation in the region. Scientists argue the Amazon is approaching a tipping point, after which it will irreversibly degrade into a dry savannah. This is happening at a time when the world needs billions of more trees to absorb carbon and stabilize the climate.

How much forest is being lost?

Deforestation spiked in July to a level not seen in more than a decade. Trees were being cleared at the rate of five football pitches every minute, according to Brazil’s space agency. Over the single month, 2,254 sq km (870 sq miles) were lost, a rise of 278% in the same month last year. This year could be the first for 10 years in which 10,000 sq km of Amazon are lost.

Brazil had been able to slow down deforestation by 80% between 2005 and 2014. This was done with strict monitoring, better policing and stiffer penalties. But that system has been eroded in recent years and many fear a return to the alarming levels of forest loss that occurred two decades ago.

Is the Brazilian national government the one to blame?

Yes, at least in part. Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro weakened the country’s environment agency, attacking conservation NGOs and promoting the opening of the Amazon to mining, farming, and logging. He also dismissed satellite data on deforestation and fired the head of the space agency. Alongside Bolsonaro, the agricultural lobby is powerful in Brazil and it has steadily eroded the protection system that was so successful from 2005-2014.

How is Brazil being helped by the rest of the world?

The United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, world leaders, and celebrities have expressed their concern about the situation in Brazil. The issue was one of the main topics in the G7 leaders’ summit in France, with countries committing to release US$22 million to help stop the fires. Brazil’s neighboring countries Argentina and Uruguay have also offered help to Brazil.

If the fires are stopped, could the Amazon be fully restored?

Yes. The areas in the Amazon that are currently being burned have a high restoration potential because the Amazonian ecosystem is incredibly resilient, and also because so many areas that are degraded are in close proximity to the intact forest. Nevertheless, it will take time and effective efforts to leave the forest alone. Naturally regenerating tropical forests take about 20 years for forest cover to come back.

What can individuals do?

No matter how far you live from the Amazon rainforest, you are probably benefiting from all that it gives to the Earth.

There are a few things you can do to show your support, such as donating to donating highly-rated charities that are fighting to protect the Amazon, such as Amazon Watch. Also, you can reduce your beef and dairy consumption, activities that can lead to deforestation — this is probably the most important and significant thing you can do. Lastly, pushing your politicians to take action on these issues, both locally and globally. At the very least, being aware (and spreading awareness) can also amount to something.

Amazon is burning at a record rate in Brazil

The Amazon rainforest is burning at a record rate, with Brazil having declared a state of emergency over the rising number of fires in the region. So far this year, almost 73,000 fires have been detected, which marks an 83% increase from 2018 and the highest number on record since 2013.

Credit: NASA

Brazil saw a sharp spike in deforestation during July, which has been followed by extensive burning in August. Local newspapers have argued farmers in some regions are organizing “fire days” to take advantage of weaker enforcement by the Brazilian authorities.

While the Amazon rainforest is typically wet and humid, July and August — the onset of the dry season — are the area’s driest months, with “activity” peaking by early September and stopping by mid-November, according to NASA. The fires are largely linked to people clearing out the land for farming or ranching.

Satellite images show fires in the Brazilian states of Amazonas, Rondonia, Para, and Mato Grosso. The state of Amazonas is the most affected. The effects of damage to the Amazon go far beyond Brazil and its neighbors. The area’s rainforest generates more than 20% of the world’s oxygen and harbors 10% of the world’s known biodiversity.

The Amazon is usually referred to as “the lungs of the planet” and plays a major role in regulating the climate. The world would drastically change if the rainforest were to disappear, impacting everything from farming to the water we drink.

The smoke coming out from the forest fires can actually be seen from space. The European Union Earth Observation Program’s Sentinel satellites captured images of “significant amounts of smoke” over Amazonas, Rondonia and other areas. Skies also darkened over San Paulo after winds carried smoke.

Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, has also faced criticism. People are charging him with a lack of action and with encouraging logging and farming in the Amazon. Bolsonaro accused environmental groups of starting the fires, as a way to embarrass his administration.

“On the question of burning in the Amazon, which in my opinion may have been initiated by NGOs because they lost money, what is the intention? To bring problems to Brazil,” the president told a steel industry congress in Brasilia.

Social media started the hashtags #PrayforAmazonas and #AmazonRainforest. Twitter users criticized media for giving more attention to the fire at Notre Dame and other news than to the rainforest fires. Social media users also called out billionaires for lack of donations.

Suspension Bridge.

Wildfires in Africa keep the Amazon lush with fertilizing smoke

New research from the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine shows that African wildfires supply the Amazon with vital nutrients.

Suspension Bridge.

Image via Pixabay.

The team reports that winds blow nutrient-rich aerosol (i.e. smoke) from Africa that keep the Amazon Basin fertile. These aerosols are estimated to deposit around one half of the phosphorus that plant life in the Basin consumes. In effect, this makes the African continent a key player in the Amazonian ecosystem.

Airmail nutrients

“It had been assumed that Saharan dust was the main fertilizer to the Amazon Basin and Tropical Atlantic Ocean by supplying phosphorus to both of these ecosystems,” says the study’s senior author Cassandra Gaston, an assistant professor in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at UM’s Rosenstiel School.

“Our findings reveal that biomass burning emissions transported from Africa are potentially a more important source of phosphorus to these ecosystems than dust.”

Previous research has shown that dust blown over from the Sahara and other desert regions in Africa act as sources of nutrients for South America. The role of smoke in this, however, was still unknown.

Besides seeding the Amazonian Basin with phosphorus — enabling its wealth of biodiversity and productivity to sequester significant amounts of atmospheric carbon dioxide — the team also found that these aerosols fertilize the Tropical Atlantic and Southern oceans (TAO), sustaining the phytoplankton that is the basis of the marine ecosystem in the region.

The findings are based on measurements of windborne dust, phosphorus  and soluble phosphorus Amazon’s northeastern coast. The team also tracked winds from the African continent using satellite data.

Wind-borne dust wasn”t very rich in phosphorus. The team reports that it actually acts as the area’s main supply of low-solubility phosphorus (P) in February through April contributing around 5%. September through November, however, the team recorded high levels of soluble P originating from biomass fires in Southern Africa. This also coincided with the season when dust deposits are lower.

The team crosschecked their findings by identifying aerosols from Africa on high-soluble-P measurement days using satellite imagery. They also traced back all high-soluble-P aerosols in air masses that had passed over the Sahara and the Sahel where biomass burning was active.

The team says their findings offer a new perspective on biomass-burning emissions, which are considered primarily destructive in terms of air quality. While such events are known to promote new growth in their wake, it’s exciting to see how it can affect developments on a whole other continent.

It also helps explain how the Amazon Basin manages to retain its immense biodiversity and productivity despite heavy, year-round rainfall, which drains the soil of nutrients. It dentifies an important nutrient source for marine ecosystems in the region.

The paper “African biomass burning is a substantial source of phosphorus deposition to the Amazon, Tropical Atlantic Ocean, and Southern Ocean” has been published in the journal PNAS.

8 bird species have disappeared this decade or are on the brink of extinction

Credit: Cinemablend.

Unlike the animation Rio, in real life, there are no more Spix’s Macaws left in the wild. Credit: Cinema Blend.

In the 2011 animation film Rio, a captive-raised Spix’s Macaw by the name of Blu arrives in Brazil to mate with the last-known wild member of his species, a female named Jewel. In real life, however, Rio would have arrived a decade too late.

According to a recent study, the last wild Spix’s Macaw disappeared in 2000 and the species is now presumed extinct apart from a handful of specimens born and raised in captivity. Along with it are seven other bird species that have suffered the same fate in the last decade.

The study, funded by the non-profit BirdLife International, statistically analyzed 51 critically endangered bird species and found that eight could likely be classified as extinct or very close to extinction. Specifically, three are already extinct, one is extinct in the wild — there are an estimated 70 Spix’s Macaws (Cyanopsitta spixii), left in the world, all captive — and four are extremely close to extinction, if not already gone.

The extinct bird species identified in the new study are the Brazilian cryptic tree hunter (Cichlocolaptes mazarbarnetti), last seen in 2007; the Brazilian alagoas foliage-gleaner (Philydor novaesi), last seen in 2011; and the Hawaiian black-faced honeycreeper (Melamprosops phaeosoma), last seen in 2004.

A total of 187 species of birds have gone extinct since scientists started keeping records. Historically, birds native to islands have been the most vulnerable due to invasive species, but deforestation ramped by expanding agriculture and logging is growing fast as the leading driver of avian extinction.

“Ninety percent of bird extinctions in recent centuries have been of species on islands,” said Dr. Stuart Butchart, BirdLife’s Chief Scientist and lead author on the paper. “However, our results confirm that there is a growing wave of extinctions sweeping across the continents, driven mainly by habitat loss and degradation from unsustainable agriculture and logging”.

Adult Spix's macaw in Vogelpark Walsrode, Germany in 1980. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Adult Spix’s macaw in Vogelpark Walsrode, Germany in 1980. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Butchart and colleagues hope that their work will inspire more action to prevent other extinctions. Five of the eight extinctions reported in the journal Biological Conservation involve species in South America, four of which happened in Brazil. The Amazon, where most of these extinct species were once abundant, lost 17 million hectares of forest between 2001 and 2012. Unlike other animals, birds are more vulnerable to habitat loss because they often occupy ecological niches, consuming specific prey and nesting in specific trees.

“Our results confirm that there is a growing wave of extinctions sweeping across the continents, driven mainly by habitat loss and degradation from unsustainable agriculture and logging,” said Butchart.

Echo.

Amazon implements new “delete everything I said today” command for Alexa

With privacy concerns mounting around the Alexa digital assistant, Amazon adds an ‘amnesia’ command — one that will delete a conversation it overheard.

Echo.

Image via Pixabay.

This Wednesday, Amazon announced adding a new command for Alexa — “Alexa, delete everything I said today”. According to the company, it does pretty much what it says on the tin: the personal assistant will not remember a thing. It also says a command to order Alexa to delete a particular conversation — something that was just said, for example — is in the works.

A step in the right direction or a bandaid for the wrong one?

Concerns have been steadily mounting that internet-linked, microphone-equipped smart speakers can listen in on private conversations or interactions. As of writing this, typing “is Alexa” in Google returns “is Alexa spying on me” right behind “is Alexa smarter than me”, which illustrates the public interest in this topic in a pretty amusing way.

In recent months, criticism of both Amazon and other manufacturers of smart-speakers escalated, as more and more of these devices found their way to peoples’ homes. Earlier this month, a coalition of 19 consumer groups accused Amazon of illegally collecting voice recordings and other identifying information on users under 13 with its Echo Dot Kids Edition. There are also safety concerns regarding the devices.

Amazon didn’t stay deaf to these concerns (do you think Alexa snitched on us?) and wants to help consumers delete recordings of their voices from its Echo range of devices, which run Alexa. As such, it made this operation available via a simple voice command. The company previously provided tools in the Alexa app and on its website to erase those recordings. Microphones and cameras on Echo smart speakers can also be turned off, they add.

However, the can has been rattled, and smart-speakers are coming under increased scrutiny. The California State Assembly, for example, is working on a bill that would force smart-speaker manufacturers to obtain consumer consent before saving recordings of commands or conversations. Frankly, I don’t get how this wasn’t required already. Other legislators are also considering similar moves, and the Illinois Senate has recently passed a bill on the issue.

Right now, AI assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri keep recordings of everything said to them after their ‘wake’ words by default, to help better train the software. Google’s assistant (named Assistant) was recently revised to no longer record what it hears after its wake words (“Okay, Google”) by default. Many consumers complain that — although the devices aren’t supposed to record anything without first being addressed to directly — sometimes these smart-speakers accidentally turn on and record conversations it was not invited to.

Amazon said that it introduced the voice commands to allow customers easier control of their privacy. Users will be able to remove the day’s recordings by saying, “Alexa, delete everything I said today.” In the near future, the company adds, they will also implement the command “Alexa, delete what I just said” to allow customers to erase the last request they made of the device.

Cocaine, ayahuasca, and DMT — South Americans had hardcore rituals 1,000 years ago

Archaeologists working in South America have discovered a shamanic pouch which contained traces of powerful hallucinogenic substances including cocaine, dimethyltryptamine (DMT), and harmine — key active compounds in ayahuasca, a mind-blowing brew commonly associated with the Amazon jungle.

“This is the first evidence of ancient South Americans potentially combining different medicinal plants to produce a powerful substance like ayahuasca,” said Melanie Miller, a researcher with UC Berkeley’s Archaeological Research Facility who uses chemistry and various technologies to study how ancient humans lived.

Ritual bundle contents include a leather bag, carved wooden snuff tablets, and a snuff tube with human hair braids. Image credits: Juan Albarracin-Jordan and José M. Capriles.

Ayahuasca may be enjoying a recent surge in popularity in some circles, but the hallucinogenic concoction goes back a long time. In the 16th century, Christian missionaries from Spain first encountered native South Americans in the western Amazonian basin using ayahuasca. Of course, they considered this to be the “the work of the devil”, and given the situation, you can’t really blame them.

Ayahuasca, a strongly hallucinogenic brew, is considered to be a traditional spiritual medicine in ceremonies among the indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin. People who have consumed ayahuasca often report having mystical or religious experiences and spiritual revelations and claim a cathartic, rebirth-like experience.

Recently, archaeologists uncovered one of the oldest pieces of evidence regarding the usage of this brew. The remarkably well-preserved ritual bundle was found by archaeologists at a high elevation of 4,000 meters (13,000 feet) in southwestern Bolivia, where llamas and alpacas roam the land. The leather kit includes a purse made from three fox snouts sewn together and dates back to the pre-Inca Tiwanaku civilization. The Tiwanaku dominated the southern Andean highlands from about 550 to 950 A.D. Miller and colleagues also found intricately carved wooden “snuffing tablets” and a “snuffing tube” with human hair braids attached, llama bone spatulas, a colorful woven textile strip, and dried plant material. No human remains were uncovered at the site, but all these objects were well-preserved, due to the dry conditions of the Andean highlands.

The Cueva del Chileno in Bolivia where the bundle was found. Image credits: Juan Albarracin-Jordan and José M. Capriles.

Researchers believe this to be a ritual site, probably used by experienced shamans since the substances involved produced quite serious effects.

“A lot of these plants, if consumed in the wrong dosage, could be very poisonous,” Miller said. “So, whoever owned this bundle would need to have had great knowledge and skills about how to use these plants, and how and where to procure them.”

At the very best, “tryptamine DMT produces strong, vivid hallucinations that can last from minutes to an hour, but combined with harmine, you can have prolonged out-of-body altered states of consciousness with altered perceptions of time and of the self,” Miller said.

This pouch was made from three fox snouts. When Miller scraped the inside, she found evidence of hallucinogenic substances. Image credits: Juan Albarracin-Jordan and José M. Capriles.

Many South American civilizations believed that you can embody the soul of an animal, which is probably why the pouch was made particularly from fox snouts. For Miller, who undertook a two-day journey to reach the excavation area, it was thrilling to study the artifacts.

“We were amazed to see the incredible preservation of these compounds in this ritual bundle,” said Miller. “I feel very lucky to have been a part of this research.”

She and her lab provided the technology needed to conduct toxicology tests on the samples, which included liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry, two technologies used to identify and quantify the components of a mixture. At first, archaeologists were unsure what to make of the stash, but when the lab results came in, everything clicked: everything was used for spiritual purposes — or to consume drugs, depending on how you see things.

The study indicates that ayahuasca and other similar substances have been consumed for over a thousand years in the Amazon basin. Nowadays, ayahuasca is experiencing an unexpected revival in places such as California, where some claim that it has become “as common as a cup of coffee.” Recent studies have also found that ayahuasca may help in treating conditions such as depression.

The study “Chemical evidence for the use of multiple psychotropic plants in a 1,000-year-old ritual bundle from South America” by Miller et al. has been published in PNAS.

Amazon Estuary.

Why the Amazon is the widest river in the world

Lenght isn’t everything so today, we’re taking a look at which river can boast being the widest.

Amazon sunset.

Sunset over the Amazon River.
Image credits Oscar Castillo.

Earlier this week, we looked at which river is the longest in the world — a deceptively tricky question to answer, as my colleague Tibi showed. Width, by contrast, should be much more straightforward, shouldn’t it?

Well, not really; but let’s get into it.

Widest of the wide

Before we bite into the issue, let’s take a moment to talk estuaries.

Rivers that flow out to sea in tidal regions tend to form wide mouths known as estuaries. The Thames, the Loire, La Plata, Saint-Lawrence, Ob-Irtysh, the Tagus rivers, are some of the rivers that form estuaries. Due to tidal movements on the one hand and the river’s outflow on the other, estuaries tend to hold brackish water — a mixture of sweet and salt water brought in by the tides. The same motions that mix these two also flush out silt and other sediment flowing out to sea. In effect, this prevents the river from forming new deposits at its mouth.

Amazon Estuary.

Satellite image of the Amazon River estuary (Brazil), with Marajó Island in the center, and the cities (in red) of Macapá (left) and Belém (right).
Image credits NASA / LandSat / Geocover 1990 via Wikimedia.

Estuaries, then, resemble deltas sans the solid bits. This is quite relevant in the context of the discussions we’re having today, as deltas tend to be wide, fan or funnel-shaped structures.

Since estuaries aren’t technically rivers, I’m not going to include them in the comparison to follow (sorry, estuaries). To give you an idea of how massively wide such structures can get, the St. Lawrence River (on the Canada-US border) estuary — the widest in the world — boasts over 140 km in width. That’s wider than the state of New Hampshire, and simply dwarfs anything a river can reach.

With that out of the way, we’re left with five candidates for the title of “World’s Widest River”: the Missouri, Amazon, Mekong, Huanghe, and Congo rivers.

Function of circumstance

The length of a river may be tricky to measure because there are many ways to go about it. Their width, however, is hard to gauge because it changes over time.

A river’s length is mostly a product of geography — where it springs, where it flows out to sea, and the terrain between these two points. Their width is mostly a function of volume — i.e. how much water it carries. Geography tends to stay constant; volume likes some variety.

However, since volume weighs so heavily, a likely victor appears: the Amazon.

The Amazon has the largest drainage system (the surface it draws water from) in the world, covering a large part of South America — some 350,000 sq kilometers. Even better, that drainage system includes vast expanses of rainforest, which tend to be very humid environments that see large quantities of precipitation.

This bountiful fief makes the Amazon a leviathan. It single-riverly supplies 20% of all the fresh water that drains into oceans on Earth. Its average output — of 209,000 cubic meters (7,381,000 cubic ft) per second — exceeds the average output of the next seven rivers combined.

All that water helps make the Amazon the widest river in the world. During the dry season, it is about 11 kilometers (6.8 miles) wide at its widest points. During the wet season, it explodes to some 40 kilometers (24.8 miles) in width. In terms of surface (width times length), the Amazon covers around 110,000 sq km (42,400 sq miles) during the dry season, and it more than triples during the wet season to 350,000 sq km (135,000 sq miles), according to Extreme Science.

The Amazon currently holds the Guinness World Record for the widest river in the world — 11 kilometers (7 miles) at its widest point, measured on the 18th of March, 2005.

River_Nile_map

What is the longest river in the world? That’s surprisingly debatable

Measuring the world’s longest river is actually not as simple as it sounds. The process is far more complicated than finding the source and the mouth then measuring the distance between them. Rivers often join together in river systems making it very difficult to pinpoint where an individual river begins and where it ends.

How do you measure a river? It’s not as simple as using a ruler

Today, most hydrologists agree that the most accepted method is to measure the longest possible along-thalweg continuous distance from the headwaters of the 1st order stream to the mouth of a river. The thalweg is a line connecting the lowest points of successive cross-sections along the course of a valley or river. A 1st order stream is a stream without any tributaries entering. When two 1st order streams meet, they form a 2nd order stream and when two or more 2nd order streams meet, they form a 3rd order stream — and so on. In other words, to find the longest river, you have to measure the length of the longest continuous river channel in a given river system.

That’s still a gross oversimplification because, in practice, things can get very tricky. For instance, for most rivers, the mouth is easy to determine and measure, but for very large rivers like the Amazon, which flows into the ocean, placing the mouth can be less concrete — and can make all the difference in terms of river length. Another example of murky measurement is the Mississippi, whose headwaters are considered by the USGS to be Lake Itasca in Minnesota, yet if its longest tributary is taken into account (the Jefferson and Missouri rivers), it becomes three times as long.

I know what you’re thinking — get to the damn question already.

Well, there are two ways to think about the largest river. One is length, where the Nile takes the crown, and the other is volume, where the Amazon clearly stands out among all other river systems in the world.

The Nile — the longest river in the world

River_Nile_map

According to the U.S. National Park Service, the river Nile is the longest in the world, spanning 4,135 miles (6,650 kilometers). Though it mostly runs through Egypt, from its source in Burundi to its delta on the Mediterranean Sea, the Nile also passes through nine other African countries: Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The biggest lake in Africa, Lake Victoria, was historically regarded as the source of the river Nile. A waterfall known as Ripon Falls on the northern edge of the lake pours water through a narrow opening, which many claim this to be the very beginning of the Nile. But if that’s the case, what’s the source of Ripon Falls? Lake Victoria is surrounded by mountains riddled with streams which tumble down into the lake. The largest tributary of Lake Victoria is the Kagera River, which has its headwater in Burundi. It is from here that the Nile is measured as the world’s longest river.

Some 300 million people depend on this river for their water supply and for food crop irrigation.

There’s even a dam that harnesses the Nile’s energy — the Aswan High Dam. After it was completed in 1970, for some years it used to provide half of the electricity demand of Egypt, though this figure has steadily decreased as the nation increased its electricity demand. It now supplies around 20% of the country’s electricity. The dam also controls summer flooding.

At the other side of the spectrum, officially, the shortest river is the D River in Oregon, USA, which is just 37 meters long.

The Amazon — the largest river in the world by water volume

location-map-amazon-river

Credit: Maps of the World.

It’s not even close: the Amazon is considered the 2nd longest river in the world, spanning 3,980 miles (6,400 kilometers). However, it holds the title of the world’s largest river by volume. On average, 120,000 cubic meters (about 20 swimming pools’ worth) of water flows out of its mouth every second. It contains a staggering 20% of the world’s fresh water supply. Some parts of the river can exceed 120 miles (190 kilometers) in width when the Amazon swells during the wet season. Even in dry conditions, the Amazon is so wide throughout its length that to this day, no bridge spans it.

From its source in Peru, the Amazon, or Rio Amazonas in Portuguese and Spanish, flows mostly through Brazil and empties into the Atlantic Ocean. The Amazon also forms the world’s largest river drainage basin that includes Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia.

The source of the Amazon has also been hard to pin down over the centuries. Scientists and explorers have attempted to establish the river’s source ever since the 1600s. Over the years, five rivers in southwestern Peru were given the honor and for nearly a century the headwaters of the Apurímac River on Nevado Mismi was considered as the Amazon’s most distant source. But a 2014 study found it to be the Cordillera Rumi Cruz at the headwaters of the Mantaro River in Peru.

However, some geographers have disputed this — according to them, Mantaro stays dry for about five months of the year when the Tablachaca dam, built in 1974, diverts its water through a 12-mile (20 km) tunnel. And to make the dispute even more interesting, if the Mantaro River really is the source, that would add 47 to 57 miles (75 to 92 kilometers) to the length of the Amazon.

Does being the longest even matter?

In 2007, Brazilian researchers announced they had identified a new source and a new mouth, measuring the Amazon 4,225 miles (6,800 kilometers) long and toppling the Nile as the longest river. The mouth of the Amazon is traditionally thought to be located on the north side of the Marajó Island, which is about the size of Switzerland. The rather hefty area means that the side of the island the mouth is on can matter a lot when measuring the Amazon’s length. The Brazilian study, which was not peer-reviewed and immediately proved controversial, put the mouth on the south side of the island to the Pará River then out into the ocean. After more recent studies, experts seem to agree that, although there’s indeed some of the Amazon’s water in the Pará, the latter river is distinct from the Amazon. The Nile is still king for now, but as new sources are discovered and mouth areas are redefined, the crown could get swapped between the two rivers — and possibly more than once.

At the end of the day, ‘the longest river’ title doesn’t even matter all that much. As the constant juggling of measurements throughout the centuries show, there will always be some researcher or team that will claim they’ve made some more precise readings. And of course they will — the coastline paradox states that measuring something with a complex geometry, such as a coastline is not possible because the length actually increases the more granular the measurement gets. Huh? I know that sounds shocking, but this counterintuitive concept has been proven mathematically and arises from the properties of fractal-like geometries, which includes rivers. Rivers have a lot of curves and the more you zoom in, the more bends and twists you see.

So, keeping the coastline paradox in mind, a lot of scientists have long ago stopped caring about measuring river length. What’s far more interesting and scientific — not to mention a lot easier and precise — is to look at the drainage area, which is an area of land where precipitation collects and drains off into a common outlet, such as into a river or a bay. By this measure, the Amazon is clearly the largest river in the world with a drainage area of 6.3 million square kilometers, while the Nile makes it only to the fifth spot, trailing behind Congo, the Mississippi, and the Ob.

What do you think?

Rainforest canopy.

NASA creates first 3D model of Amazon rainforest canopy to estimate the effects of droughts, climate change

In an effort to estimate the effect of drought on the Brazilian Amazon, NASA has created the first ever 3D model of its canopy.

Rainforest canopy.

Image credits Robert Kerton / CSIRO.

Rainforests are some of the most complex and rich ecosystems on the planet (see here and here). One striking feature of such forests is that their canopies — which can rise up to 15 or even 20 stories high — form ecosystems unto themselves. However, they are in danger.

Climate projections suggest that the Amazon basin will experience warmer and drier conditions in the future. We’ve learned from periods of drought that rainforests don’t handle dryness well. When faced with long periods without rain, rainforest trees risk drying out because there’s not enough water in the soil for them to pump up to the canopies — so they starve.

However, we’re not quite at the point where we can estimate — based on our climate and precipitation projections — exactly how rainforests will react in the future. Simply put, estimating the number of dying or damaged trees (for example, where only branches are falling) is almost impossible. Rainforests are vibrant but chaotic, abundant but densely-packed places, and getting any kind of accurate data on tree health has long been an elusive goal for researchers.

When in doubt, LiDAR the sample

Traditionally, researchers attempted to record this data by hiking through rainforests and surveying a few acres of trees in spots along the way. They would count how many trees were alive, how many were dead, looked at the quantity and types of debris on the ground, and used these readings to estimate forest-wide averages.

Since that has traditionally not-worked-very-well, Doug Morton from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, decided to use an eye in the sky. He and his team used an airplane-mounted light detection and ranging (LiDAR) device to create a 3D model of the Brazilian Amazonian canopy, drawing data from three separate flights in 2013, 2014 and 2016.

LiDAR works largely the same as radar, only it substitutes light in lieu of radio waves. Firing some 300,000 laser pulses a second, LiDAR can provide an incredibly detailed model of an object — much more accurate than what hiking researchers could achieve.

The team flew over two 30-mile (50 km) stretches near the city Santarém in the state of Pará, Brazil: one over the Tapajós National Forest (also in Brazil), and one over privately-owned stretches of the rainforest — most of which are strongly fragmented by human land-use. This region of the Amazon basin typically has a three-month dry season from October through December, the team writes, the same period when surface temperatures peak in the Pacific Ocean (during the El Niño event). El Niño delays the start of the rainy season in the central Amazon, leading to an extended dry season that stresses the trees.

The team used the LiDAR readings to detect gaps in the canopy — areas where a tree or branch had fallen in the months between each survey. They write that between 2013-2014 (a non-El Niño period), falling branches and trees altered around 1.8% of the forest canopy in the examined area. Scaled up over the whole Amazon basin, that would be equivalent to losing canopy trees or branches over 38,000 square miles (98,000 square km).

During the El Niño drought period from 2014 to 2016, branch morality rose by 65%, equivalent to 65,000 square miles (168,000 square km) over the whole basin.

Even subtle changes add up in the Amazon, Morton says, because it’s such a huge forest. So a subtle shift in precipitation patterns during an El Niño year ends up having a huge impact on the forest’s ability to sequester carbon. Dry periods, in other words, alters the balance between how much carbon the trees store as they grow versus how much they give off when they die and decompose.

However, the drought didn’t selectively affect more tall trees than smaller ones, as previous experiments suggest. This, Morton says, is good news.

“Large trees hold most of the carbon in any forest. If droughts were to preferentially kill large trees, it would boost the total amount of carbon that’s lost from drought as opposed to other disturbance types.”

The team says that understanding the effects of prolonged drought will give us a better sense of what might happen to atmospheric carbon levels if drought events become more common due to climate change.

The paper “El Niño drought increased canopy turnover in Amazon forests” has been published in the journal New Phytologist.

A majestic river dolphin leaping out of the water. Credit: F. da Silva VM.

Pink river dolphins in the Amazon basin are declining rapidly

The Amazon’s iconic freshwater dolphins are in steep decline, announced Brazilian researchers. According to them, the Amazon dolphin populations are halving every decade.

A majestic river dolphin leaping out of the water. Credit: F. da Silva VM.

A majestic river dolphin leaping out of the water. Credit: F. da Silva VM.

There are two species of river dolphins living in the Amazon basin: the boto (Inia geoffrensis) and the tucuxi (Sotalia fluviatilis). The boto, also known as the pink river dolphin, is famous for its pink coloring, but many people aren’t aware that it actually comes in a large variety of shades. The dolphins first start off gray but turn pink as they age, with their final hue being influenced by behavior, capillary placement, diet, and light exposure.

Pink river dolphins can be found throughout much of the Amazon and Orinoco river basins in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, and Venezuela. They are solitary creatures who are often seen alone or in small groups of 2-4 individuals. However, they’re not shy at all. Despite living in small, tight-knit groups, these dolphins can be incredibly curious and frequently interact with humans.

They’re also very agile. Unlike other dolphins, pink river dolphins have unfused vertebrae in their necks, which allow them to turn their heads 180 degrees, enabling the animals to maneuver around tree trunks, rocks, and other obstacles.  They can also swim forward with one flipper while paddling backward with the other, letting them turn with more precision. Oh, and they’re also very brainy — they have, remarkably, 40% more brain capacity than humans.

The Amazon basin’s dolphins are considered to be relatively abundant, as far as freshwater cetaceans go. However, in recent years the animals’ numbers have declined due to dams that fragment populations but also other threats like the contamination of rivers and lakes, as well as human fishing.

In a new study published in the journal PLOS ONE, researchers at the Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas da Amazônia, Brazil, analyzed data from 22 years of surveys performed in the Mamirauá Reserve. The dolphins were surveyed by boat monthly from 1994 to 2017. During this time frame, the researchers found that both boto and tucuxi Amazonian dolphins have experienced a dramatic decline. At current rates, boto populations are halving every 10 years and tucuxi populations are halving every 9 years. These are some of the most severe rates of decline seen in cetaceans since the early days of modern whaling.

The researchers conclude that if the IUCN Red List criteria were applied to the findings, then both species would be classified as Critically Endangered. The river dolphins are already legally protected in the Amazon basin, but the authors of the new study call for greater enforcement of these laws. In 2006, the baiji or Chinese river dolphin was declared extinct. The baiji’s demise was rapid and shocking, going from a healthy population of some 6,000 animals to extinction in a few decades — nothing more than a blink of an eye.

“Without an indefinite extension and strict enforcement of this regulation, combined with observance of existing laws on gillnet use, the dolphins of the Amazon seem very likely to follow the freshwater dolphins of Asia on the path of extinction,” the authors concluded in their paper.

Every other day, a new species is discovered in the Amazon

Scientists have described 381 new species in the Amazon over a two-year period, while the rainforest is destroyed by relentless logging.

The Amazon stays true to its reputation as the world’s prime biodiversity hotspot. A new report by the WWF and Brazil’s Mamiraua Institute for Sustainable Development (link in Portuguese) indicates that in 2014 and 2015, no fewer than 381 have been discovered, more than one every two days.

Researchers discovered:

  • 216 previously unknown plants
  • 93 fish
  • 32 amphibians
  • 20 mammals
  • 19 reptiles
  • one bird

That so many species are continuously discovered is exciting and shows that we still have much more work to do before we can claim to understand the area. We’re still only scratching the surface when it comes to the wildlife living in the area. But we’re already destroying it.

Zimmerius chicomendesi, a newly discovered bird. Credits: WWF.

Bad news constantly flows from the Amazon and the findings also come with a dire warning: every single one of the newly discovered species was found in areas where mankind is threatening the forest. Ricardo Mello, co-ordinator of the WWF Brazil Amazon programme, commented:

“All the species that were discovered, all 381, are in areas where humankind is destroying the Amazon. This is very important to us, because it links the fact that our economic activities are causing species to go extinct before we even know about them,” he said.”

Sarah Hutchison, WWF’s head of programmes for Brazil and Amazon, was even blunter. She points out that there are many species which we may kill off before we even get a chance to discover them — and many we might have already killed off.

“We are only at the tip of the iceberg when it comes to unveiling the incredible species that live in the Amazon, yet instead of this precious area being safeguarded, it is under greater threat than ever before.

“The discovery of 381 new species is a wake-up call for the governments of Amazon countries that they must halt the ongoing and relentless deforestation and work to preserve its unparalleled biodiversity. If they don’t, there will continue to be irreversible impacts on the Amazon’s much-loved wildlife, undiscovered species and the local and indigenous people that call it home.”

But there is still hope. She says that this report and other studies like it will serve as a wake-up call. More than 2,000 new species were found between 1999 and 2015. Identifying a species is only the first step. We still need to understand how the species interacts with its environment, and how we can better protect them.

For instance, the pink river dolphin is under threat from the construction of hydroelectric dams as well as industrial and agricultural activity. The fire-tailed titi monkey is under threat from deforestation — like many other creatures.

Unfortunately, science is also another step along the conservation ladder. Scientists do their job, but there is no guarantee that policy makers will listen, and even if they do, conservation measures have proven notoriously difficult to enforce along the Amazon.