Home >Lounge >Features >Climate Change Tracker: The Amazon forest goes up in smoke

There’s no uglier sight in nature than a forest burning. A forest is supposed to be wreathed in mist, wet and cool, not covered in smoke, charred and hot. But in the brave new world of climate change that we inhabit, a burning forest seems to be a very common sight. We call them “wildfires", the assumption being that there’s something natural and inevitable about them. But as the appalling fires in the Amazon basin, the now-annual Arctic Circle fires or even the Bandipur National Park fire in February testify, that’s hardly the case. They are all intimately related to deforestation and environmental degradation. The global wildfire epidemic of the past three years is just an example of the world’s forests beginning to devour themselves.

Take the Amazon basin, for example. According to the World Wildlife Fund, it contains 1.4 billion acres of dense forests, accounting for half of Earth’s tropical forests. It occupies 40% of South America and is home to 1 out of 10 of the world’s known animal species. Since the 1970s, however, 800,000 sq. km of the Amazon forest (an area slightly larger than Pakistan) have been lost to development projects like farming, dams, logging and road building. Chunks of the Amazon the size of football fields are being cleared every day.

In about the same time, according to a report in the Frontier In Earth Science by climate scientist Jose A. Marengo and others, the average temperature of the Amazon basin has risen by 0.6 degrees Celsius. To put that in context, global temperatures have risen by 1 degree Celsius since the Industrial Revolution. The Amazon is heating up and drying out. It is no surprise then that fires started by settlers to clear forest-adjacent land for farming now spread with impunity to old growth forests. There have been 72,843 fires in the Amazon this year, an 83% increase from 2018, according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research. And more are expected.

The Amazon forest is much studied due to the ecosystem’s fabled ability to recycle rain water and act as a gigantic air-conditioning system. But scientists warn that beyond a certain amount of loss in forest mass, the Amazon will be unable to continue doing this, and the forest will start withering and giving way to grassland. Over 17% of the forest has been lost to deforestation in just 50 years. The tipping point? According to scientists Thomas E. Lovejoy and Carlos Nobre in a 2011 article in Science Advances, 20-25%.

In next week’s Climate Change Tracker, we talk more about forests in a warming climate and take a look at the health of forests in India. Follow the series with #MintClimateTracker.

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