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Deforestation, warming flip part of Amazon forest from carbon sink to source
Theo Stein
/ Categories: Research Headlines, Climate

Deforestation, warming flip part of Amazon forest from carbon sink to source

The study area, which represents about 20 percent of the Amazon basin, has lost 30 percent of its rainforest

New results from a nine-year research project in the eastern Amazon rainforest finds that significant deforestation in eastern and southeastern Brazil has been associated with a long-term decrease in rainfall and increase in temperature during the dry season, turning what was once a forest that absorbed carbon dioxide into a source of planet-warming carbon dioxide emissions.

The study, published in the journal Nature, explored whether these changes had altered how much carbon the Amazon stored in its vast forests. 

Image
This graphic depicts the change in forest cover, precipitation and temperature at four study sites in Brazil over nine years as researchers examined the influence of deforestation and fire on the Amazonian carbon cycle. Credit: Luciana Gatti, Brazilian National Institute for Space Research.

“Using nearly 10 years of CO2  (carbon dioxide ) measurements, we found that the more deforested and climate-stressed eastern Amazon, especially the southeast, was a net emitter of CO2 to the atmosphere, especially as a result of fires,” said John Miller, a scientist with NOAA’s Global Monitoring Laboratory and a co-author. “On the other hand, the wetter, more intact western and central Amazon, was neither a carbon sink nor source of atmospheric CO2 , with the absorption by healthy forests balancing the emissions from fires.”   

In addition to storing vast amounts of carbon, Amazonia is also one of the wettest places on Earth, storing immense amounts of water in its soils and vegetation. Transpired by leaves, this moisture evaporates into the atmosphere, where it fuels prodigious rainfall, averaging more than seven feet per year across the basin. For comparison the average annual rainfall in the contiguous U.S. is two and half feet. Several studies have estimated that water cycling through evaporation is responsible for 25 to 35 percent of total rainfall in the basin. 

Image
This photo from the Amazon in southeast Brazil is characteristic of rainforest to agricultural conversion. Credit: Luciana Gatti, Brazilian National Institute for Space Research.

But deforestation and global warming over the last 40 years have affected rainfall and temperature with potential impacts for the Amazon’s ability to store carbon. Conversion of rainforest to agriculture has caused a 17 percent decrease in forest extent in the Amazon, which stretches over an area almost as large as the continental U.S.. Replacing dense, humid forest canopies with drier pastures and cropland has increased local temperatures and decreased evaporation of water from the rainforest, which deprives downwind locations of rainfall. Regional deforestation and selective logging of adjacent forests further reduces forest cover, amplifying the cycle of drying and warming.  This, in turn, can reduce the capacity of the forests to store carbon,  and increase their vulnerability to fires.

The  2.8 million square miles of jungle in the Amazon basin represents more than half of the tropical rainforest remaining on the planet. The Amazon is estimated to contain about 123 billion tons of carbon above and below ground, and is one of Earth’s most important terrestrial carbon reserves. As global fossil-fuel burning has risen, the Amazon has absorbed CO2 from the atmosphere, helping to moderate global climate.  But there are indications from this study and previous ones that the Amazon’s capacity to act as a sink may be disappearing.

Over the past several decades, intense scientific interest has focused on the question of whether the combined effects of climate change and the ongoing conversion of jungle to pasture and cropland could cause the Amazon to release more carbon dioxide than it absorbs. 

In 2010, lead author Luciana Gatti, who led the international team of scientists from Brazil, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and the Netherlands, set out to explore this question. During the next nine years, Gatti, a scientist with Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research and colleagues obtained airborne measurements of CO2  and carbon monoxide concentrations above Brazilian Amazonia. Analysis of CO2 measurements from over 600 aircraft vertical profiles, extending from the surface to around 2.8 miles above sea level at four sites, revealed that total carbon emissions in eastern Amazonia are greater than those in the west. 

“The regions of southern Pará and northern Mato Grosso states represent a worst-case scenario,” said Gatti. 

The southeast region, which represents about 20 percent of the Amazon basin, and has experienced 30 percent deforestation over the previous 40 years. Scientists recorded a 25 percent reduction in precipitation and a temperature increase of at least 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit during the dry months of August, September and October, when trees are already under seasonal stress. Airborne measurements over nine years revealed this region was a net emitter of carbon, mainly as a result of fires, while areas further west, where less than 20 percent of the forest had been removed, sources balanced sinks. The scientists said the increased emissions were likely due to conversion of forest to cropland by burning, and by reduced uptake of CO2 by the trees that remained. 

These findings help scientists better understand the long-term impacts of interactions between climate and human disturbances on the carbon balance of the world’s largest tropical forest.

“The big question this research raises is if the connection between climate, deforestation, and carbon that we see in the eastern Amazon could one day be the fate of the central and western Amazon, if they become subject to stronger human impact,” Miller said.  Changes in the capacity of tropical forests to absorb carbon will require downward adjustments of the fossil fuel emissions compatible with limiting global mean temperature increases to less than 2.0 or 1.5 degrees Celsius, he added.

This research was supported by NOAA’s Global Monitoring Laboratory and by funding from the State of Sao Paulo Science Foundation, UK Environmental Research Council, NASA, and the European Research Council. 

For more information, contact Theo Stein, NOAA Communications: theo.stein@noaa.gov

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