Signs that we are nearing a point of no return in the Amazon rainforest

Signs that we are nearing a point of no return in the Amazon rainforest

Reuters reports:

Gertrudes Freire and her family came to the great forest in search of land and rain. They found both in abundance on that day half a century ago, but the green wilds of the southwestern Amazon would prove tough to tame.

When they reached the settlement of Ouro Preto do Oeste in 1971, it was little more than a lonely rubber-tapper outpost hugging the single main road that ran through the jungle like a red dust scar.

Sitting on the porch of the family farmhouse in the sweltering heat of the Amazon dry season, Gertrudes, now 79 with neat gray hair tucked behind her ears and a smile that shows half a dozen stubborn teeth, recalls the hardship and hope.

Her children remember the fear. Fear of forest jaguars, indigenous tribes and the mythological Curupira: a creature with backward-turned feet who misleads unwelcome visitors to leave them lost among the trees.

The family carved their home from the forest. They built their walls from the tough trunks of the cashapona tree and thatched a leaky roof from the broad palms of the babassu. There was no electricity, and some days the only food was foraged Brazil nuts. At night, in hungry darkness they would listen to the cascading rain. Life was damp.

Until it wasn’t.

Near the Freire home, there was a stream so wide that the children – aged between 5 and 12 when they arrived – would dare each other to reach the other side. They called it Jaguar’s Creek. Now it’s not a meter wide and can be cleared with a single step.

The loss of such streams, and the wider water problems they are a part of, fill scientists with foreboding.

Covering an area roughly the size of the contiguous United States and accounting for more than half of the world’s rainforest, the Amazon exerts power over the carbon cycle like no other terrestrial ecosystem on Earth. The tree loss from an extremely dry year in 2005, for example, released an additional quantity of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere equivalent to the annual emissions of Europe and Japan combined, according to a 2009 study published in Science magazine.

As more and more of the forest is cut down, researchers say the loss of canopy risks hitting a limit – a tipping point – after which the forest and local climate will have changed so radically as to trigger the death of the Amazon as rainforest. In its place would grow a shorter, drier forest or savannah. [Continue reading…]

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